Obama’s State of the Union Speech Reflects a Sobering Truth

I never thought I would live to hear a Democratic President extol the virtues of offshore oil drilling, nuclear power plants and “clean coal.” And that was just the beginning. Before President Obama’s State of the Union speech was over last night, he had bragged about ramping up the Afghan war, promised a freeze on domestic spending and criticized the government program that helps old folks afford prescription drugs.

lucyDespite assurances that he would not give up on health care reform, a vow to end the military’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy and a pledge to let the Bush tax cuts to the rich expire, I thought the speech put him well to the right of centrist Bill Clinton.

What on earth was happening? As a senator, Barack Obama had a solidly progressive voting record. What could have pushed him so far to the right?

My first thought was that he was trying to placate the just-say-no Republicans. But he assured us he was not naive, so I have to discard that notion. He is old enough to remember Lucy and Charlie Brown. Every year she would hold a football for him to kick and every year she would pull it away. But Charlie Brown never learned and always came back for more. (Click on comic strip to enlarge it.)

And the Republicans’ reaction to the speech proved they would not be placated. As expected, they pretty much took his proffered olive branch and tossed it in the trash. So the question remained unanswered: what gives with Obama?

I think the answer is that he and his advisers have been reading the polls and this is an election year.

In Jamaica they say a hungry man is an angry man, and a lot of Americans are hungry. I’m not talking about physical hunger, although a recent survey found millions are without adequate food in the U.S. today. I am talking about mainstream Americans.

The truth is that they are frightened by the massive loss of jobs in the past couple of years. Those who still have jobs are worrying that they might be next. And they aren’t in the mood to hear about the dangers of oil spills, the horrors of coal burning or the ticking time bomb of nuclear waste.

As a reporter, I covered a lot of city council debates over projects that would provide jobs to a community but probably harm the environment. And I noticed that the defenders of the environment were usually middle class residents who knew where their next meal was coming from. The poor wanted the projects. They wanted jobs.

When it comes down to a choice between the environment and their pay checks, most Americans (most people) take the money every time. In their hearts they might know there are long-term dangers in fouling the planet, but in their bellies they’re feeling hunger pangs. What are the odds of them choosing the long-term benefits? You tell me.

However, there was a glimmer of hope in the gloomy picture that Obama’s speech painted for environmentalists. He talked about a concerted drive to develop an American manufacturing industry based on clean energy. And he pointed to significant government spending on research that could produce game changing breakthroughs in that area.

That would be wonderful. It would revive America’s stalled manufacturing sector, bring in money from abroad to balance the trade deficit, and help avert a global climate catastrophe.

And it would provide jobs, which is what American voters really care about right now.

Will this speech save the Democrats from the thumping they’re expected to get in the fall? I doubt it. But I guess it was worth a try.