“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules,” said President Obama in Tuesday’s State of the Union address, identifying income inequality as the “defining issue of our time.”
About 100 freshmen gathered in Wilbur Dining to hear about this defining issue, and others issues President Obama touched upon in his address to Congress, through a panel discussion with Stanford faculty members from various disciplines.
The panel, organized by Otero Residential Assistant (RA) Adrienne Pon ’12 and supported by Residential Education, followed a viewing of the Presidential address in the Otero lounge.
Among the discussion participants were: Nobel Prize-winning economist and Professor Emeritus Kenneth Arrow; Associate Professor of Political Science Adam Bonica; Visiting Scholar at the Hoover Institution and Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of North Florida Michael Binder; Director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute and Professor of History Clayborne Carson; former Special Adviser to Gov. Schwarzenegger and Lecturer in Public Policy David Crane; Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Lecturer in Political Science Tammy Frisby; former Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Director of the National Economic Council Keith Hennessey; and Pulitzer Prize-winning history and Professor of History David Kennedy.
Kennedy opened the discussion by commenting on the high turnout.
“Your response in these numbers is a powerful antidote to my nagging suspicion that this generation does not care about politics,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy moved to frame Obama’s speech within the historical framework of the State of the Union address. The speech, delivered by George Washington and John Adams in person later became a written report under Thomas Jefferson, and remained so until Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 address.
Kennedy also commented on the change in function of the tradition.
“Virtually everything else in the address was not reportorial about the state of the union it was aspirational about where the president wants to go,” Kennedy said. “This address has become less a retrospective reflection on the state of the union and more a platform for the president to lay out his program for the future.”
Carson, who missed the first 15 minutes of the address due to the birth of his first grandson, was not optimistic about the address’ prospects for change.
“I would agree with practically everything he proposed but I’m not at all that hopeful that it’s going to have any dramatic impact,” said Carson.
Hennessey spoke next, commenting on the phenomenon of a Congressional “date night” at the address. This recent trend, in which a Republican and a Democrat sit together as a show of bipartisanship, drew his attention during Obama’s speech.
“One thing to remember is that this is an election year and typically in election year state of the union addresses you will hear the word ‘choice’ a lot,” he said. “When the president is talking about ‘we can move forward…or we can go back’ to the horrible things that caused the financial crisis he is framing that choice.”
Hennessey also commented on Obama’s “signals,” singling out taxes on the rich, alternative energy, education and American manufacturing.
“He [Obama] was prioritizing things that he would argue are important over what I think are the urgent concerns that are facing people right now and that I think is a strategic choice,” Hennessey said.
Obama’s remarks on international trade prompted some disagreement between the panelists. Hennessey held that they were “very provocative,” “dangerous” and “risked a trade war,” whereas Arrow described them as a natural reaction in a time of depression.
Frisbee criticized Obama’s speechwriters and the “clunky” nature of some parts of the speech but favorably noted his closing “grand narrative” about Americans “having each others’ backs.”
“A lot of Republicans are underestimating the challenge that lies ahead in campaigning against President Obama,” Frisbee said. “This is going to be a tough election, in my view.”
Against Hennessey and Frisbee’s Republican backgrounds, Crane compared his relationship with Obama as a “devoted Democrat” to a relationship with an old girlfriend.
“I fell in love with him in 2008, I saw in him exactly what I wanted to see,” Crane said. “It was maddening over the next few years when he didn’t turn out to be the person I thought he was.”
He agreed with Frisbee about the strength of Obama’s final passage, “This Nation is great because we built it together. This Nation is great because we worked as a team. This Nation is great because we get each other’s backs.”
Yet Crane returned to his girlfriend metaphor, saying of his internal dialogue, “I quickly recovered to say ‘Don’t be fooled again!’’’
He criticized Obama’s introduction of a Financial Crimes Unit as a late fix.
“Tonight’s speech was nothing but a reelection speech,” Crane said. “He pretty much hit every constituency he had to hit…he hit a lot of electoral districts in the country, hit Iran, hit Israel, hit the troops, the veteran’s administration, teachers student loans, outsourcing.”
The last speaker, Mike Binder, took a forward-looking approach to the speech, expanding on the lessons it gave for the upcoming Presidential election.
“From a Democrat perspective, the grand vision of American exceptionalism at the end is like fell back in love with my ex-girlfriend,” said Binder, borrowing Crane’s metaphor.
“From a Republican perspective, you look and say ‘This guy’s serious, how are we going to run against this in the fall?’” Binder added. The lesson to be drawn, he argued, was that Obama is at his best when talking about “grand visions,” but faltered when it came to the minutiae.
“If the Republicans can frame this debate on policy, specific policy technical issues then I think the Republicans are in much better shape,” Binder said.
“What does this mean for the republican primary? Who might be best at framing the debate that way?” Binder added. “It might be worth considering Newt Gingrich.”
The panel was followed by a Q&A session in which the panelists stressed to the mainly freshman audience the value of taking advantage of opportunities at Stanford to interact with faculty outside the classroom.
Otero Residential Fellow (RF) Clifford Nass heaped praise upon organizer Pon and the faculty members for their willingness to engage with the freshman audience.
Contact Marwa Farag at [email protected].