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SOTU, after a good night’s rest

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, January 28, 2010 14:15 EDT
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First of all, let me say I was wrong about one thing in the liveblogging last night. The way that Obama phrased the student aid plan last night set off all sorts of alarm bells for me. The way he explained it was that they would eliminate subsidies and replace them with tax credits, which sounds exactly like a transfer of money from the lower income students who are eligible for subsidized loans to higher income students who could use all of the tax credit. What loan subsidies do for students is simple: the federal government pays your interest on your subsidized loans while in college. IIRC from working in federal student aid, depending on your income and your grade level in college, you could borrow up to $8500 a year in subsidized loans. So I was alarmed. But when I looked it up, I found that he was being a little cagey about what “eliminated subsidies” means. The plan is to stop subsidizing loans made through banks and instead lend directly (presumably still interest-free in the same parameters), which would free up $94 billion over 10 years that could go directly to students as grants. Well, okay then. That’s actually a great idea, and I apologize for being angry about it. But you have to understand, a lot of the pandering Obama is doing is legitimately alarming.

The spending freeze situation is such an annoying gimmick that I just pray that it works how they no doubt hope. I nearly fell off the bed in anger last night when Obama dusted off that hoary right wing pandering trope about how since you tighten your belt in hard times, the federal government should. I guess Obama didn’t get the memo about how every time you repeat a trope, you lend it authority and credence, because that was an awful thing to do. Equating your household and federal government is bad for a number of reasons. For one thing, it implies that federal discretionary spending is identical to personal discretionary spending, and that the scare term “earmarks” are the government equivalent of buying nights out to dinner and video games. It’s basically telling people that the federal government is a person who spends for pleasure, like people do, and that it can be regarded as a consumer entity. This in turn helps the Republicans, who are willing to ride that metaphor hard, implying that non-military spending is the equivalent of mommy buying fancy make-up and the kids getting fancy toys, and that can be cut. Making military spending sacrosanct only reinforces this idea—masculine spending is always necessary, don’t you know? It’s the ladies and children who need to be controlled.

Of course a spending freeze is a stupid idea. Obama swears up and down that they can freeze spending while expanding spending to keep our economy from bleeding out jobs by only cutting unnecessary spending and giving it to necessary spending. Again, the notion that the federal government is out there spending money on lipstick and wine is floated, by a Democrat. I don’t disagree that the federal government spends a bunch of unnecessary money. But I fail to see what they’re actually going to cut, especially during a recession. Obama says “earmarks”, but the whole cutesy plan of putting all the earmarks on representatives’ websites will only demonstrate that you really can’t cut there, because the voters who look those pages up are going to see nothing but a bunch of money that’s an investment in their community. Everyone wants earmarks cut—someone else’s earmarks. In your district, it’s an earmark. In mine, it’s an investment in the community.

There are huge swaths of federal spending that should be cut because they create major problems. If Obama rolled out a plan to cut those instead of earmarks, then I’d be all ears. For instance, he tied Michelle Obama’s childhood obesity campaign to health care. Okay, fine, but what concrete steps will you take to make sure that people eat better from babyhood on? Simply telling people to eat better won’t do it—people have known they need to eat better for decades, and yet they don’t. But completely reworking our agricultural spending so that we quit subsidizing the fast food industry would help a lot, but making it more expensive to eat a bunch of crap. However, I doubt very seriously we’re going to see the Obama administration try to rework our agricultural system during a recession, because a lot of choices would threaten existing jobs even if they created better jobs down the road. And because eliminating cheap, high calorie food would be extremely unpopular, because it saves people money in the short term while continuing to blow health care costs through the roof in the long term.

Or we could, per my request in the Hyde amendment video, cease and desist funding private armies that are up to no good worldwide, and often advertise themselves specifically as capable of squashing rebellious inclinations amongst working people. But that’s swept in under “defense spending”, which we have learned is sacrosanct. Or we could slash in a lot of places that are mentioned in that video. But again, every time you make a cut, you put a lot more people out of work. Stopping the War on Drugs is a great idea, but it would reduce the need for prisons dramatically, leading to many to be shut down and all their staff to return to the ranks of the unemployed. Unless the federal government is willing to step up and create entire new industries where prisons are the only industry (which is true in many red states), then this could actually be a disaster for them. Those clean energy ideas sound interesting, of course, but not specific enough.

Above all, I feel Obama blew his chance to really lead Congress out of this health care debacle. He acted tough in a couple of places, but he didn’t devote the time necessary to drive home the message. Nor did he do what he had to, which is call for an end of the filibuster or otherwise make it clear that Republicans should not act like they have a majority with 41 votes. It’s great to talk about obstructionism, but let’s get our hands dirty and talk specifics. Why not point out that the filibuster skyrocketed the second the Democrats got the majority?

Democrats hope to win by painting Republicans as little children screaming, “Nooooooo!”, even on super popular legislation. That’s a great idea! But they don’t have the guts to actually follow through. Health care reform is a perfect example—some of the most progressive elements are the most popular, and yet Democrats are acting like Republicans are speaking for the people in blocking those and pretty much everything else. The plan now is clearly to highlight financial regulation that expands on the villainy of the banksters, and to point out that the Republicans are basically straight up shills for the worst, most exploitative corporate interests. Great idea! But if Democrats’ behavior on health care reform is any indication, I won’t hold my breath waiting for them to do the fighting necessary to make Republicans look bad. Or, even better—actually passing legislation with their 59 vote majority in the Senate.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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