David Rothkopf

If Obama Were a Truth-Teller

Here’s what he would say on Tuesday night.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The White House has teed up this year’s State of the Union address in the usual ways. It has leaked bits and pieces of its content to key news organizations, hinted at themes. It has invited guests to sit in the balcony with the first lady and be used to as political props. It has set up the president’s schedule so that he flies out of town immediately afterward and takes his message, campaign-style, to the people — and thus draws out the coverage the speech gets and, with any luck, steps on whatever news might be created by the twin Republican responses, one from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and the other, for the Tea Party faction, from his Kentucky colleague Rand Paul.

With the goal of setting an agenda focused not just on economics but specifically on restoring opportunity for the middle class, the president has picked a central theme that seems logical and unlikely to stir up debate. That said, to achieve his goals will require investment in infrastructure and education that will be contentious, particularly in the cut-oriented and obstructionist House of Representatives. And some issues that he will bring up, such as immigration, gun control, and climate are sure to be hotly debated, parsed, and divisive.

The president will also reintroduce his desire to eliminate nuclear weapons, a goal that is both vitally important and one on which we will make little progress over the next four years. And he will go down a foreign-policy checklist that will reassert our friendship with Israel, our desire to get out of the Middle East, probably our desire to make new progress on trade and exports, and so on. The usual.

But here’s what the president won’t do that would be welcome: He won’t tell the real truth to the American people. It’s not that he is a liar. It’s not that he doesn’t mean well. It’s because he no doubt believes — and he is probably right — that the American people can’t handle the truth. But frankly, whether they can handle it or not, they need to hear it. So here are 10 of the key truths he’ll sidestep, talk around, or consciously ignore — and the segments of the American population and people around the world who need to hear them.

 1. To Americans under 18: Kids, we love you, but you need to know a few things. First, you will not be retiring at 65. Your Social Security benefits will not be kicking in until you are 70; possibly until you are 72. We won’t have the courage to make this change now, so it is going to come a little later in your lives — but plan accordingly. We can’t afford to do otherwise.

2. To gun owners: You guys are absolutely right. There’s precious little new regulations are going to do to reduce crime if there are already 300 million guns in circulation. That’s why we have to take those guns out of circulation. We’re probably not going to come into your homes to get them — although we should. So here’s what we’re going to have to do: We’re going to outlaw your carrying them in public, trafficking them, and using them in a crime. Again, we’re not going to do this now. It’ll take a few more horrific tragedies to get there. But rest assured, we’ll get there. Guns really are the problem and getting rid of guns is the only way to solve it.

3. To his fellow politicians: We need to clean up our act. Money is the problem. I have made things worse. I led the way in 2008 by opting out of federal matching funds. I have paid off donors with political appointments like an old time Tammany Hall pol. I have also watched as K Street money has bought and sold legislation, whole legislators, and big chunks of America’s future. The only way to stop this is getting money out of politics. That’s why we’re going to move to 100 percent federally funded elections and 90-day campaigns, and if it takes a constitutional amendment to get it done, then so be it. (But I’ll also work on rebalancing the Supreme Court every chance I get.) 

4. To Congress: Incivility and obstruction aren’t just ugly, they are a violation of our oaths of office. So here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to invite congressional leaders to my house once a month for the remainder of my term for dinner. We’re going to spend three hours in a room together. If we sit there in silence, so be it. But we owe it to the voters to make it a priority. And we’re going to start by discussing how to undo those rules and procedures that exacerbate our differences — from gerrymandering to the filibuster — and make obstruction all too easy.

5. To the top brass in the Pentagon: The phony debate over cuts has to end. It is no longer possible to continue spending what we do on defense and to neglect not only our fiscal plight but the investments in infrastructure, education, technology, and health care that we so desperately need. Something has got to give, and the biggest discretionary pool of spending we have is defense. In organizations in trouble, 10 to 15 percent cuts in spending are normal, 20 percent not unheard of. That means you need to find me $100 billion a year for the next 10 years just to prove you understand the problem. It’s there. We’re creative enough to do it and maintain our national security. It is actually by pretending we can maintain the status quo that we put ourselves at greatest risk.

6. To the energy community: This is a moment of great opportunity and challenges. A new energy paradigm will make us energy independent and safer. It can help move us toward a healthier climate. But it will also require some candor and some big changes from all parties. Shale gas is a boon, but it also presents real environmental challenges that we must acknowledge and address. The gas boon should allow us to switch away from coal. The time to start is now. The coal can be exported but, to be honest, that doesn’t help the planet very much in the long run. We need to phase out its use and, in the interim, embrace the cleanest available technologies. Efficiency is as big a part of this revolution as shale. We need to create new incentives to achieve it. And we are going to need to pay for it with a carbon tax. Even big energy companies realize this is coming. Let’s stop pretending it’s not and start leading the world again.

7. To American taxpayers: While we’re being honest about taxes, take a deep breath and accept the inevitable. The only way to fix our fiscal problem is to cut defense and entitlements and raise taxes. And the most significant change to our tax policy that is coming almost certainly will be a value-added tax. Let’s plan on it and use it to initiate a process by which we drastically simplify our ridiculous, loophole-ridden tax code. And let’s throw in that carbon tax while we’re at it, too.

8. To our allies in Israel: We are your friends. Friends tell the truth. Your world has been rocked by big changes, and since roughly the early 1980s you have been doing nothing to help yourselves adapt. Demographics now pose the ultimate challenge to the idea of a democratic Jewish state in the Middle East. You need to stop with the ridiculous, inflammatory settlement policies and recognize that the greatest guarantor of Israel’s security is not the United States but a prospering Palestinian economy. Focus on making that happen — on creating jobs and opportunities in the Palestinian territories — and progress is possible. Oh, and we’re going to be ramping down our involvement in the Middle East for a while. Like forever. Our rhetoric won’t change. We won’t completely disappear. But you’ve already seen the changes start to happen. We simply have neither the appetite nor the budget for more wars.

9. To our friends in the Palestinian territories, and to our enemies there: Clean up your act.  Until you have a single government, a single agenda, and are willing to be serious, we’re not getting involved.

10. To our terrorist enemies: We’re going to keep coming for you. With drones. With Special Forces. With whatever it takes. We don’t care about international law. We don’t even care about our own law. You scared us. You scarred us. And no American leader can afford to drop his guard.

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