The Independent

Spilt Milk

Diane Sawyer and Barack Obama
Diane Sawyer and Barack Obama
January 2012: Just 48 Hours After the State of the Union, Diane Sawyer to Interview President Barack Obama. | Diane Sawyer, Barack Obama, State Of The Union, 2012,

The State of the Election Address, Diane Sawyer, and more...

In his State of the Union address this week, President Obama made a couple of statements that are simply ridiculous on their face. First, he made a joke about relaxing a decades-long regulation that required farmers to their manage milk spills because milk was somehow equated in the regulation with oil. He argued that farmers could be trusted to manage their own milk spills, even though one could easily understand, given the silly equation, how we might cry over spilt milk.

Wait for it' wait for it'

And there it is. Do you hear the laughter? It is polite, at first, but then it grows. How funny that joke! How clever. Except that the joke is not in the wordplay. It is in the principle behind it. The President was using a clever little anecdote to make a point about how tenacious he has been in eliminating unnecessary regulations.

But the joke, my friend, is on you.

Because, while the President may trust the farmer to manage his own milk spills, he doesn't trust you to choose which light bulb to use. Or which car to buy. Or what food to eat. Or which school to send your children to.

Or which way you invest for your retirement or which healthcare you choose or which mattress you sleep on or which banks go out of business during a recession or whether an officer gets to touch your junk at the airport or which bicycle/washing machine/cellphone charger/television set/shower head/or whatever-you-can-name to purchase.

In other words, the President isn't entirely, completely, whole-heartedly given over to the idea of slash-and-burn reduction of regulation. It was like Bill Clinton saying in one of his State of the Union address that "the era of big government" was over, and then going on to propose dozens of new federal programs. Or Colin Powell telling the United Nations that Iraq had WMDs and that this was "not an assertion" but "facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence." It was stretching the truth at a minimum, and lying at its extreme.

For, you see, to be fair, the President then went on to argue that he "won't go back" to the days when children are poisoned by mercury or banks make risky bets with customers' deposits or water is not clean or blah blah blah blippity blah. Because now, he said, there is a government watchdog (his recently appointed consumer advocate, Richard Cordray) who has only "one job," which is "to look out for you."

So what's wrong with all of that? How is it ridiculous? Well, because by regulating the washing machine and the car and the school and the air conditioning and the light bulb and the bicycle and the whatever-you-may-name' the government's regulations ' those things that the President is busily reviewing and cutting to the bone ' add $1.75 trillion to the cost of goods and services in the economy each year. That figure, by the way, is far more than Americans pay in income taxes each year. And it's a significant reason that corporations are fleeing the country in search of more suitable regulatory environments.

I should point out here that the figure of $1.75 trillion comes from the Small Business Administration. Those of you who are prone to discounting everything that comes from an interest group that doesn't believe in all particulars the same things you do may now stop reading and go about your daily lives. And while you're out running errands, could you pick up some $15 light bulbs for me? Mine have burned out.

While certainly no one wants to "go back" to a time when water was unclean, I am unaware of any politician who has proposed such a measure. By arguing that he has done more to ease regulations than his predecessor, Obama was attempting to leave the impression that he is moving toward the hardest, leanest government possible, while still looking out for the little guy. Yet the increase in government regulation under Obama is undeniable ' spilt milk be damned! ' and the only thing left to do, if Mr. Obama has his continued way is to give over more freedom so that ' like with the Mafia boss who comes round looking for a little "protection money" ' we will be saved from the calamity of making our own decisions.

Because now' there is a guy in Washington who has nothing else to do but "look out" for us.

The second thing the President said that was simply preposterous was in his closing argument. He claimed America "was back" ' and that those who claim she is in decline are simply wrong. Here the President was like the old Jon Lovitz SNL character called "annoying man." He'd poke at you and poke at you and poke at you with these strange nasally whinges until you called him on it and shouted at him to stop, and then he'd reply in a deep sonorous boom: "Well, you don't have to be rude."

The President has told us in the last couple of years that we've gone "soft" ' that we've lost our competitive edge. He was reported in the Times of India, the largest English-language newspaper in the world, as telling a Mumbai townhall that the days of America deciding for itself what to do are over, that the rise of competitors such as the BRIC nations has forced us to be better global citizens. He sent his Vice-President to China to charm the owners of our debt so they'll continue to fund us. He has pointed out how China is leading the world in renewable energy and education and mass transit. He presided over ' with those damned Republicans, who are no better, by the way ' the loss of our credit rating, for god's sake.

So to complain now about those who have had the audacity to notice our troubles, and to call such people out as unbelievers, is a little like, well, the pot calling the kettle black.

The President called the state of our union "strong." He has to do that. Every president does it. But if he truly believes that, he hasn't been checking the polls. Many Americans are not entirely convinced that we are on the right path. I don't necessarily think it is all his fault. He has had Bush's legacy to contend with and the global economic environment. And two wars and the Arab Spring and the rise of the Tea Party. And the tsunami. But every president has to deal with problems. The thing that the President hasn't been able to do is to prove to us that he is a leader we can place our trust in. There is a reason that people have been marching in the streets in Oakland and New York. There is a reason that Tavis Smiley and Cornel West are complaining. Forget the boobs on conservative talk radio ' they have careers to tend to that require them to disagree ' but even people who voted for the man and placed great hope in him have come to doubt that he is capable of doing what he says he wants to. At least part of that is because he seems to be a little clueless. Another part of it is because he doesn't really seem to want to. He likes saying the words. But he doesn't seem much for putting them into action. That is why when he calls for much-needed programs like comprehensive immigration reform, people wonder why he does it now, in the middle of a campaign season, when he has lost his majority, when he has no hope of getting it done, when he needs Hispanic votes.

Of course, the Republican candidates have yet to propose anything that seems any better. Why in world we find ourselves in the midst of such a difficult period, with a weak and weakened leader, and the best the Republicans can do is Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney ' well, it boggles the mind.

In an interview in 2010, the President told Diane Sawyer that if given a choice between being a good president or a one term president, he'd rather be the former. If we're not careful, or if Mr. Obama doesn't step up his game, he may turn out to be neither.

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:29 PM EDT | More details

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