Neil Macdonald: Obama dekes right, test-driving a new agenda

It was a rambling and maybe confused state of the union address that U.S. President Barack Obama delivered Tuesday night, Neil Macdonald writes. At times he even veered sharply into Republican territory, with forays to shear the deficit and Medicare costs.
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the annual address in Washington 1:09:59

It never fails. The time to start listening closely is always after you hear the word "but."

And, after Barack Obama uttered that word last night in his state of the union address, he duly delivered the kicker — that a little more than a month after extracting a hefty tax hike from wealthy Americans, he wants more.

Not surprising, perhaps, to anyone with a basic understanding of the way the U.S. operates. And probably unavoidable.

The seminal fact of governing in this nation is that its people fancy themselves committed to small government, but aren’t.

Government spending, or as Obama likes to call it, "investing," accounts for about 40 cents of every dollar in the American economy —more or less exactly the proportion the government occupies in the Canadian economy, which, according to U.S. political myth, is driven by socialism.

At the same time, Americans balk fiercely at paying for the services they demand — far more so than Canadians, who aren’t keen on remitting huge chunks of their income to government, but seem to understand it’s the price of public services.

Look out, boomers

For years, Washington’s solution has been to speak solemnly about the need for fiscal probity, then borrow whatever is necessary to operate the welfare state its citizens desire.

Obama and chief of staff Denis McDonough leave the White House yesterday. Which way is the president turning? (Reuters)

And make no mistake. This nation of rugged individualism does operate a welfare state, despite what its citizens want to believe.

America provides unemployment benefits, health care to the indigent and the retired, and old age pensions, not to mention a galaxy of subsidies for farms and industry, and a mammoth military machine that serves as much as a job-providing apparatus as an institution of national defence.

Some of that would appear to be coming, finally, to an end, if Obama gets his way.

The Treasury is exhausted, and the central bank cannot continue to print money indefinitely.

So last night, Obama made it clear that all those retiring baby boomers, who will expect top-notch, on-demand free health care, will be disappointed, not unlike the way they are in Canada.

It’s hardly in line with Democratic party orthodoxy, but Obama made it clear that "modest reforms" — meaning less services — are inevitable.

He nodded to the need for deficit reduction, but added "we can’t ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and most powerful."

Wealthy seniors (and Obama was careful to leave wealthy undefined) will have to pay more for prescription drugs. There will be further tax increases, which Obama described as "getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and well-connected."

Without saying it, Obama was talking about further Canadianizing the American health-care system.

A suddenly crammed agenda

The rest of the speech was largely a laundry list. This is a president who came to power promising to do something about climate change, which he hasn’t done much about, and may not do much more in his second term.

Still, he intends to keep toying with solar and wind power, and the electric-car technology that’s so far been a flop.

But Canada’s government may be heartened by one short phrase in the speech: "My administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits."

Will that extend to permitting the extension of the Keystone pipeline, despite the fact it will be carrying what environmentalists (and many Democrats) consider dirty oil from Alberta oil sands?

Canadian administration watchers here think the answer is yes. But you can certainly count on endless parsing of those words in Canada’s circles of power in the days to come.

Back to the shopping list, Obama wants more money for education. A higher federal minimum wage.

Plus, he is foursquare behind immigration reform, which at this point in American political life you’d think would be a no-brainer. Even Republicans are buying into that one.

He also outed his own drone program, and conceded that perhaps he might want to let Congress help decide who should die and when.

Taking another page from the Republican playbook, he embraced free trade, across the Pacific and the Atlantic, vowing to pursue a deal with the European Union. Canada wants the same thing, but will inevitably have to hand the steering wheel to the American president if he wants it.

The most moving moment in the speech was his appeal for a Congressional vote on gun control measures. He cited the horrible fact that since the Sandy Hook shootings, "more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by the bullet from a gun."

But that’s the reality of gunned-up America, and even Obama, a man not known for moderating his reach or rhetoric, is really only talking about improving background checks and fiddling with gun hardware.

It was a curious, rambling, somewhat confusing speech. A president willing to move right to tackle the country’s growing debt and deficit, and determined to move left at the same time.

A man who wants to be an activist in his second term "without adding to the deficit by a single dime."

Gone is all that first term hope-and-change rhetoric, not that it ever amounted to much anyway.

In its place stands a man trying to live up to the progressive expectations he once raised, and trying to govern a nation that is notoriously difficult to govern.

The United States by doctrine believes itself to be exceptional. And it is. It’s just not exempt from the laws of economics.

Nations cannot indefinitely spend and cut taxes simultaneously. Perhaps the turning point has arrived.