“We have to be very clear on this point: That the response is to the image, not the man… It’s not what’s there that counts, it’s what’s projected — and carrying it one step further, it’s not what he projects but rather what the voter receives.”
Despite its jarring applicability to last night’s State of the Union address, this quote does not come from Jim Messina or David Axelrod. It comes from Raymond Price, a Nixon campaign aide who gave the above political advice to his candidate during the 1968 presidential campaign. For better or worse, this remains axiomatic in today’s political culture, particularly during a presidency enveloped in a perpetual campaign. Last night was a prime example.
This State of the Union, like many that preceded it, was an attempt at delayed beer goggles; that is, with the morning-after intended as the best part. In a carefully concocted blend of vagaries, grand vows and contemptible culprits, the president asked us again to breathe easier and trust him. We have to, lest our “children’s children look us in the eye and ask” why we didn’t.
There are a number of factors up in the air following a fifth stab at a renewed “year of action”: its efficacy, wisdom, practicality. However, amidst all these uncertainties, one point holds across the board. Odds are, the brunt of these policies will fall on us.
We are this president’s Palinurus. Whether or not you think his agenda worth it, we are the necessary sacrifice, more often than not, necessitated for it to start.
The cardinal example is Obamacare. The logic of the Yale Dining plan is the bedrock of our health care system: Much like General Tso’s Tofu and Vegan Ravioli, the product exists because it is mandated. Even for the most adamant supporters of the health care overhaul, it is undeniable that young voters pick up the tab. And that premiums bill goes upwards of 75 percent higher for people like us.
At the opening of President Obama’s speech, he mentioned an entrepreneur who “flipped on the lights in her tech startup” as a signal of an emerging economy. But in practice, this administration has done more to the tech industry than a trillion Mary Millers could have done to YBB+. According to Census Bureau data, startup jobs per 1,000 Americans have fallen to 7.8 from 11.1 under Bill Clinton, 11.3 under George H.W. and 10.8 under George W. Bush. Why? Consider a Hudson Institute study from Tim Kane: “The U.S policy environment [a combination of taxes and ‘regulations on labor’] has become inadvertently hostile to entrepreneurial employment.”
For those not privileged enough to be on the cusp of this new, high-skilled economy, prospects look far worse. While calls for a higher minimum wage may win plenty of support from the labor electorate come midterms, once more we are the ones who suffer. Take University of California at Irvine’s David Neumark, who surveyed 100 studies of the minimum wage to find that roughly 85 percent found “a negative employment effect on low-skilled workers.” (Re: young, often poor, people). These negative externalities only compound the already dampened trajectory of countless youth suffering under a 16.2 percent unemployment rate.
And while education reform was touted as the quasi-panacea for our future’s inherited problems, this too seems to have fallen secondary to higher priorities. It is clear from last night’s speech that the president hopes to place wider college enrollment on his list of accomplishments. But what is the cost (and who bears it) of this legacy project? In the last 30 years, tuitions for four-year public colleges have gone up by 257 percent, while family incomes have risen only 16 percent. This is not due to the avarice of deans and professors. In 2010, the nonprofit College Board concluded that rises in tuition directly correlate with increases in federal Pell Grants.
In a sense, we are this administration’s 2 a.m. text: far from the priority, but expected to be there. When it comes to these defining projects — from health care, to a “fairer” or more “equal” economy to a revolutionized sense of education, and the like — we are the ones who, over decades if not lifetimes, pay the cost of these political experiments.
“The America we want for our kids … none of it is easy,” President Obama said last night. As a generation, we are fiscally conscripted to many of his goals. I hope we’re up for the heavy lifting.
Harry Graver is a senior in Davenport College. His columns run on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.