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The True State of the Union: A Politics Daily Sampler

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It has evolved into a national exercise, one that invites participation from all Americans and not just the president of the United States. What is the state of our nation? Barack Obama will provide his vision Wednesday night in a stylized exercise known as the State of the Union address. If he follows the scripts of previous presidents, he will say it is "strong." And he will tell us how to make it stronger. He will be following a venerated pattern dating to the earliest days of the republic.

Section 3 of the Constitution is tucked unobtrusively into Article II, coming right after the Framers' brief and opaque language about impeachment, and right before the longer directives in Section 2 conveying pardon power to the president as well as the title commander-in-chief -- and granting the United States' chief executive the authority (subject to the advice and consent of the Senate) to appoint cabinet ministers and jurists. The president also, it continues . . .

"...shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union."

Nothing is said about the month of January, let alone a formal address, or even that it must take place each year. As with so many presidential customs, however, George Washington set a lasting precedent. Addressing a joint session of Congress on Jan. 8, 1790 in Federal Hall in New York, President Washington began:

"I embrace with great satisfaction the opportunity which now presents itself of congratulating you on the present favorable prospects of our public affairs."

He delivered these annual messages in person thereafter, as did his successor, John Adams. Thomas Jefferson, showing his famous phobia about monarchy, sent his State of the Union reports to Congress in writing -- as did every president until Woodrow Wilson delivered his 1914 address in person. It was actually Franklin D. Roosevelt who truly institutionalized doing it in person every year, although there have been a half-dozen exceptions since then. And it was Ronald Reagan who began the tradition of delivering the address immediately after assuming office instead of waiting a year. (Technically such first-year speeches are called something else, but for all practical purposes they are State of the Union addresses.)

More important than his timing was George Washington's optimistic tone, which has been emulated faithfully through the decades as well. And if the "favorable prospects" described by America's first president didn't always apply, that didn't stop subsequent presidents from putting the best face on events.

"Now that we are definitely in the process of recovery. . ." FDR told his countrymen in 1934 -- when the nation's economy was most definitely not recovering. This is par for the course. In his 1974 State of the Union speech, Richard Nixon promised no recession was coming, vowed never to walk away from his job, and described the war in Vietnam as though the United States had emerged as the winner. (Nixon had resigned by August that year, the recession arrived by September and Vietnam is communist to this day.) President Clinton declared in his 1996 State of the Union address that "the era of big government is over." A year later, in his 1997 speech, the president pretty much said never mind to all that. Having been re-elected, Clinton delivered himself of a Fidel Castro-length speech of some 6,800 words, in which, after uttering the obligatory phrase -- "the state of our union is strong" -- he proceeded to outline how much stronger it could be if the federal government was involved in everything from ensuring that "every 12-year-old must be able to log onto the Internet" to mandating the length of hospital stays for women battling breast cancer.

The verdict in the O.J. Simpson wrongful death civil trial had come earlier that day, crowding out the details of Clinton's 10-point plan for education and underscoring the wisdom of Rep. J.C. Watts, the Republican chosen to give the opposition party's rebuttal. "The state of the union really isn't determined in Washington, D.C.," Watts said. "It never has been, and it never will be."

Nor is the president the only one who decides such cosmic questions. In that spirit, and in advance of President Obama's Jan. 27, 2010 State of the Union address, Politics Daily's writers, editors and key contributors offer their assessment on the true state of the American union. -- Carl M. Cannon

The State of our Politics

On Wednesday night, President Obama will say that the state of the union is strong, but I'm sad to say that the state of our political system is broken. I spend nearly every day on Capitol Hill, watching, listening and talking to members of Congress and staff from both parties. They all care about their country. But they also care a great deal about their own political careers -- and far too much about their political parties. Too many lawmakers view legislating as a zero-sum game in which their enemy's loss is a victory and their their enemy's victory is a loss.

Voters, especially independents, have repeatedly told Washington that they don't care for the partisanship that's driving the agenda. In every election cycle since 2006, the party in power has lost because independent voters swung to the other side in search of less partisanship and more problem solving. Even after Scott Brown's victory Tuesday, when most Brown voters said they oppose the Democratic agenda in Washington, three-fourths also said they want Brown to work with Democrats to solve the country's problems.

Despite most politicians' fondness for polls and addiction to self-preservation, few on Capitol Hill seem interested in appealing to independents, let alone working constructively with the other party to get something done in 2010. Most Republicans see legislative progress as giving comfort to Democrats in a year that already promises Republican gains, while Democrats openly worry that if legislation passes with GOP support, Republicans will "try to take credit" for it.

President Obama told Americans in 2004 that he did not see a "red America" or a "blue America," but a United States of America. But even he has fallen short of his promise of bi-partisanship. There's a difference between asking Republicans if they agree with him, as he has done in the health care debate, and actually doing something that a Republican could agree with. Until he provides more bi-partisan leadership, there's little chance that anyone in Washington will see the point in following along-- Patricia Murphy

The State of Our Military

"I wish we had enough to feed everybody," said a U.S. paratrooper who was helping Haitians line up for emergency food rations being distributed to homeless people camped out in a soccer stadium in Port-au-Prince. Inevitably in this hungry city, some would go without. "Turning away people just sucks," the American soldier sighed."A lot of what we do sucks," muttered his buddy, a fellow paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade. "That's why they pay us to do it."

With two wars ongoing -- there are still 98,000 American soldiers stationed in Iraq and a force in Afghanistan growing toward 100,000 -- the United States military took on an emergency deployment here after the Jan. 12 earthquake seemingly without breaking stride. An Air Force special operations team arrived within hours and set up an air control system; emergency airfield operators were soon on the ground unloading cargo and distributing it to relief organizations, and 3,000 airborne troopers arrived to help distribute food, assist Haitian police with security, and provide trauma medical care. All of this was done with a minimum of normal military griping.

In short, the U.S. armed forces is more than pulling its weight.

Still, the strain of two long wars falls hard on military families. They are proud of their contribution but struggle to hold their families together through long absences. Yet the Haiti mission is especially gratifying, as many people attracted to the military have a strong sense of humanitarian service. "We are all proud to be in and to do what we do," a 19-year old paratrooper told me. "We are lucky to be able to respond this way." -- David Wood, from Port-au-Prince

The State of our Health Care

Our health care system is unfair and unsustainable, and attempts to fix it are stalled. As Democrats ponder how or even whether to proceed on health reform, the underlying facts and imperatives -- both financial and moral -- haven't changed.

One: Health care costs are projected to soar from $2.5 trillion last year to $4.3 trillion in 2018, from 17.6 percent of our nation's Gross Domestic Product to 20.3 percent GDP. Nearly two-thirds of the money is spent on 10 percent of the population. Overall, spending is much lower, and a much lower share of GDP, in other developed countries that cover all of their residents.

Fact two: The United States doesn't cover all its residents. It is the only industrialized nation without such a system in place, public or private. Employer insurance plans cover more than 60 percent of non-elderly residents while the government takes care of the poor, the elderly, soldiers, veterans and low-income children. But that still leaves 46 million uninsured -- the self-employed, the unemployed, workers at companies that don't offer coverage, people who can't get policies because they are sick, people who are kicked off policies when they get sick, people who can't afford insurance or just don't want to buy it.

These are continuing realities and also reminders that President Obama and his party had good reasons for venturing into this legislative swamp. There is no justification, however, for staying mired there for a solid year and now maybe two. In his State of the Union address, Obama will no doubt make the case for health reform from every angle, including self-interest, compassion and economics. But can he, will he, follow through? It will take a bill-signing ceremony to prove that his leadership is as strong as his rhetoric. -- Jill Lawrence

The State of our Jobs

In supposedly recession-proof Washington, D.C., unemployment this month rose to 12.1 percent just before Christmas. In my home state of California, it's even higher -- the place we used to call the "Golden State" has lost a million jobs since the onset of The Great recession.

In 2009, according to a forecast by the California Building Industry Association, some 35,600 homes were built in the state. This is the lowest recorded number since anyone began keeping track in 1954 -- and perhaps the lowest in the state's history. The Associated General Contractors of America predicts no recovery in the building industry in California or nationally in 2010, and estimates that almost one out of four construction workers in this country are without work.

One out of every ten Americans is looking for a job. Since last July, 1.7 million people simply stopped trying. Another 9.2 million are under-employed: They want full-time work, but can only find part-time jobs. The Labor Force Participation Rate -- the percentage of working-age Americans who are in the labor force -- has fallen under 65 percent, its lowest rate since 1983.

"Workers seem to be particularly discouraged by this recession," says New York financial analyst Chris Rupkey. That's because unemployment is only one of the financial pressures families are facing, albeit the most critical. As Jill Lawrence notes above, health insurance is not an academic matter for American families where one or both parents have lost steady employment, who are underwater on their mortgages, and who have been forced to raid dwindling retirement funds.

Apparently believing their impeccable academic credentials shield them from criticism, tone deaf White House economists assert that employment is a "lagging indicator" -- a phrase intended to make people believe an economic recovery is just around the corner. To unemployed Americans, this kind of talk actually suggests a quite different, and scary, possibility; namely, that nobody in charge really knows what to do about a recession that began in December of 2007. The president and his aides also are fond of asserting that the administration's $787 billion stimulus "saved" vast numbers of jobs. When pressed, however, they cite public sector positions which are being funded by taxpayers with money that has been borrowed -- of course -- from future generations of Americans, from the Chinese, from Lord-knows-where.

His political advisers tell the president that he needs to assure Americans in his State of the Union address that he will "fight" to get them a job -- and health care -- and Obama has already begun peppering his talk with such focus-group tested pugilistic references. But fighting words won't make anyone who is without work feel better. Only a good job will do that. -- Carl M. Cannon

The State of Our Overall Economy

As the saying goes, "Rosie Scenario" is an economist's best friend. The Obama administration is likely to call on Rosie in the next few days to convince the American people that the economic recession -- which began before the president won a single primary -- is going to end soon. Is that rosie scenario justified? Based on the true state of the economy, the answer is no. Even if the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression ends this year, there is little optimism that economic growth will return to healthy levels in 2010.

Rosie's news for the construction sector, which is at the root of the economic crisis, is abysmal. Yes, the word on home sales is good, but for bad reasons, since the increase is mostly due to buyers taking advantage of increased foreclosures and temporary government programs, which do not create the conditions for a strong recovery. Sales prices are rising from their exceptionally low levels, but the typical home still sells for less than it did six years ago and the average sales price is still 30 percent lower than it was at its peak level. Mortgage delinquencies are rising as are foreclosures in both the prime and sub-prime markets.

Credit conditions remain dismal. Despite the president urging banks to increase their loans, credit remains tight for both businesses and consumers, with consumer lending lower now than it was before the economic crisis began. It might help if the federal government followed up last year's $787 billion stimulus and spent its way to recovery, but fiscal constraints close off that path. In just one year, the share of public debt held by the federal government has risen to over 50 percent of gross domestic product and is projected to exceed GDP in little more than a decade. With no change in what the government spends and what it collects in taxes, the federal budget deficit will rise to nearly 20 percent of national income. It is not only budget experts who find this fiscal scenario unsustainable.

The American people understand that the state of the economy is not good. A Bloomberg survey taken in December found that only three of every ten respondents believe the country is headed in the right direction. More than four in ten respondents were reassured by the economy just three months earlier. The downward trend in these survey figures, more than any other, paint a pretty dismal picture of the true state of the economy. -- Joann M. Weiner

The State of our Foreign Policy

Despite Barack Obama's baffling Nobel Peace Prize, the state of America's relations with the rest of the world remains shaky. This is a dramatic improvement over the Bush-Cheney years when American foreign policy was characterized by a glowering hostility towards a certain trans-Atlantic continent ("Old Europe" in Donald Rumsfeld's sneering description), the United Nations (it is hard to imagine a more incendiary ambassador than John Bolton) and international treaties (the Geneva Conventions were left in a torturous state). During the prior administration, France was often treated as a more implacable foe than North Korea.

But the election of a president who is more popular in Madrid and Munich than in Massachusetts has not instantly solved America's foreign policy problems. The rift with Europe was merely a symptom of a deeper difficulty -- America's inability to impose its will on a recalcitrant world despite a military budget that approaches $700 billion. International stability is still threatened by the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, eight years after George W. Bush made them charter members of the Axis of Evil. Failed states harbor terrorists and breed terrorism. The Middle East -- neglected, for the most part, by the Obama administration -- is no closer to even a fig-leaf agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

For all the political emphasis during the 2008 campaign on Obama's willingness to negotiate with adversaries without pre-conditions, it is hard to see any fruits from this approach after a year into the new presidency. Despite an embarrassing Hugo Chavez handshake, Obama has yet to work out a modus vivendi with Venezuela, let alone with post-Fidel Cuba. International cooperation only carries the Obama administration so far before it runs smack into the narrowly defined self-interest of China or Russia. From the wrenching humanitarian crisis in the Sudan to effective sanctions against the Iranian nuclear program, China (reveling in the power that comes from serving as America's de facto banker) has become the global "just say no" obstacle to collective action.

As Obama took pains to stress in his Nobel Prize address, America has not been transformed into a give-peace-a-chance, saffron-robed superpower. The nation is waging two wars (with as many troops on the ground as when Obama took office) with Baghdad still vulnerable to hotel bombings and with no end in sight (except the president's rhetorical promise) to the Afghan struggle. Yet the president has yet to enunciate an overarching vision to define America's long-term strategy in battling Islamic terrorism -- not only in Afghanistan, but also with drone missiles in Pakistan and CIA counter-insurgency warfare in Yemen. Is this the new Thirty Years War as Dick Cheney would argue? Or is it a more limited conflict? Such are the uncertainties hanging over the nation's re-engagement with the world a year after America's first international rock-star president since John Kennedy moved into the Oval Office. -- Walter Shapiro

The State of Our National Mood

Americans are angry, and it is not just Tea Party activists.

A majority of the electorate is distrustful of the expanding role of government, believes the Obama administration's programs aren't making the economy better or are making it worse, opposes the health care reform initiative that has preoccupied the White House and Congress for months while unemployment rose, and, for the moment, has waning confidence in President Obama.

Whatever credit the administration gets from economists and voters for heading off a financial collapse through bailout programs and a big economic stimulus is eclipsed by all those other negative elements contributing to the public mood. The gloom is compounded by a growing sense reflected in the polls that the main beneficiaries of government action over the last twelve months has been Wall Street and the financial institutions rescued by the government.

The health care debate, as it drags on, has greatly exacerbated levels of partisanship and polarization, adding to the sour public mood. Those opposed to the various measures moving through Congress include large numbers of people who say they are strongly opposed to the legislation -- and in national and state-level polls they far outnumber those who describe themselves as strongly in favor.

Whether it is health care or what the government is doing to turn around the economic and financial crisis, Americans right now are having a crisis of confidence that their government knows what it is doing. -- Bruce Drake

The State of Human Rights

American compassion for those who suffer needlessly hasn't diminished in the wake of our own present economic straits (just look at Haiti), so it's going to sound like a root canal for a gift horse to posit that the State of Human Rights in this country these days is a sorry affair. The fault, though, lies not in the hearts of the American public, but with an administration that has let human rights slip to a sad second on its agenda.

The president rode into town on a white horse called Engagement -- no longer would the USA ignore the evil axes. We would talk to the bad guys, make them understand our position, try to meet on common ground and push forward a human rights agenda in places where oppressive regimes hadn't given way in years. Right? Sorta. On some of the world's most high-profile human rights issues of the day, the White House has been wilfully slow in developing its (questionable) policies, never mind implementing them.

Long a staunch advocate for the Darfur cause, Obama waited nearly nine months after his inauguration to announce a Sudan policy, which basically amounted to a soft, carrot-heavy engagement with the regime of indicted war criminal President Omar Al Bashir. By then, Obama's Special Envoy to the region, Scott Gration, had already put his foot in his mouth by contending that the US might need to offer "cookies" and "gold stars" to Bashir's government. Three months later, Khartoum has moved forward with its planned 2010 national elections, without having met many of the key benchmarks critical to ensuring free and fair elections.

With Burma, long the seat of one of the world's most repressive military regimes, Obama sat on his hands for months, waiting to announce U.S. policy until the (sham) trial of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi had concluded. By late September, Suu Kyi had been sent away for her 14th year of house arrest, and the U.S. announced a new strategy of (surprise!) engagement with the Burmese regime.The fruits of this approach have not been evident: the Burmese baddies have locked up nearly 2,100 political prisoners -- essentially all of the Burmese pro-democracy movement -- in advance of elections to be held sometime this year.

China is a major player in many of these human rights hot-spots -- either as a trading partner (and de facto supporter) of rogue regimes like those in Burma, Guinea and Sudan, or as a perpetrator of human rights abuses like the ones seen in Xinjiang province or, most famously, Tibet. The fact that the Chinese now hold an estimated $1.6 trillion in U.S. securities has put America in an especially awkward situation, but Obama shamed himself -- and I'd venture to say, sullied America's reputation -- when he declined to meet with the Dalai Lama last year in an effort to smooth relations with the Chinese.

It looks like he's learned a lesson from this: When Google announced that it might pull up stakes in China following protracted battles over censorship and a reported Chinese cyberattack on human rights activists, the Chinese tried to brush it off as a "commercial matter." Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton roared back with a vengeance, saying: "We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. . . . Our responsibility to help ensure the free exchange of ideas goes back to the birth of our republic." Got that? Human rights -- freedom of information, freedom of speech -- are woven into the fabric of this country, and we bear a responsibility to protect them. Or, as Obama himself said during his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize: "When there is genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo, repression in Burma -- there must be consequences. Yes, there will be engagement; yes, there will be diplomacy -- but there must be consequences when those things fail." Now it's just time for him to back up that part about "consequences." -- Alex Wagner

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