In all the State of the Union commentary I’ve read I haven’t seen anyone make the point that most of the policies the president called for are small ball. They’re not serious public policy; they’re more in the way of shoutouts to various segments of the Obama constituency.
He called for universal preschool. Perhaps this would be something better than Head Start which policy experts have shown has no lasting positive effect. But there’s no sign here of any serious legislation. Obvious target constituency: the teacher unions. Preschool teachers could supply a flow of dues money to the teacher unions which in turn could send some of it to Democratic politicians.
He called for legislation on climate change and if none is forthcoming threatened administrative action. Obviously this divided 113th Congress is not going to pass legislation that failed in the heavily Democratic 111th Congress. And the threat of regulation, while real, is to some extent limited since courts have struck down several EPA and other agency regulations already. Obvious target constituency: greens.
He called for “paycheck fairness,” legislation to assure that women get equal pay. But women have been protected against job discrimination by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was passed 49 years ago. We’re more distant from the time of that law than that time was distant from World War I. Presumably what Obama has in mind is some tweak like the much ballyhooed Lily Leadbetter law, which makes it easier for women to sue for long very long ago discrimination. Obvious target constituency: feminists. Actual target constituency: trial lawyers, who would find it easier to shake down deep pocket defendants.
He called for a commission to make it easier to vote. Actually it’s already easy to vote and if there are long lines in your community you can urge local election officials to fix the problem. Obvious target constituency: black organizations which argue that requiring photo identification at the polls is a civil rights violation.
He ended his speech with a vigorous call for gun control. But of course there’s no reason to think that any feasible legislation could prevent massacres like the one in Newtown. Target constituency: gentry liberals who want to confiscate all privately owned guns.
Some serious public policy is going to be made in the second Obama term, much of it in a slipshod way. The budget sequester, an idea that started in the Obama White House. The rollout of Obamacare, which could be a disaster in many ways. Financial regulation under the Dodd-Frank legislation, which presents hugely difficult problems.
The policy mavens who over three decades designed and expanded Social Security were serious public policy makers, whose programs are proving unsustainable because of demographic trends which they did not anticipated and perhaps could not have been expected to anticipate. Serious public policy makes the Obama folks are not.