Leonard Quart: Inspiring Obama, calculating Cuomo


NEW YORK >> President Obama's State of the Union address was predictably eloquent, especially when he addressed the nature of contemporary American politics: "Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise," and "our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention."

He also engaged in a rare public self-critique of his inability to connect with opponents: "It's one of the few regrets of my presidency that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better."

Obama said he was inspired by American voices that embody "fairness," "grit," and "good humor," and who "do the work of this country." He concluded with these words: "I'm optimistic that (Martin Luther King's) unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That's what makes me so hopeful about our future. I believe in change because I believe in you, the American people."

Obama's homage to democracy and the American people was effective political rhetoric and apt for the occasion, but to my mind a sentimental wish fantasy.

I see no sign that MLK's "unarmed truth" and "unconditional love" will prevail against Trump supporters or the Koch brothers and their cohorts who carry inordinate power in this country. Many of Trump's people are supporting the blustering, media savvy demagogue because he appeals to their fear about the country being swamped by immigrants, attacked by terrorists, and run by men and women whom they see as outsiders and intellectual elitists like Obama. There are clearly many ordinary workers and small businesspeople who hunger to be led by a figure who doesn't bother with the complexities of policy but asserts, "Just leave it all to me and everything will be solved."

Even if the majority of the people will never be capable of fulfilling Obama's grand vision of them, I still prefer that dream to the Republican view that the people are self-interested, mean-spirited, and ethnocentric — a public that only responds to appeals to their basest instincts. If more of the electorate had shared Obama's vision, we could have passed many more expansive and socially committed policies rather than the callous, fear-mongering Republican plans that have, more often than not, dominated the last seven years.

Obama's State of the Union was much more eloquent and visionary than Andrew Cuomo's laundry list of a State of the State address. Of course the bullying, ruthlessly pragmatic younger Cuomo hasn't built his career on soaring speeches and being reflective and urbane. He is a shrewd and aggressive political operator, much more skilled than Obama in dealing with other politicians, whose main commitment is to maintaining power, and who can shift from the right-center to the center-left whenever the situation dictates.

He has been generally liberal on issues that are safe to endorse in New York like marriage equality, abortion, environmental protection, and gun control, and, at the same time, wary of offending Wall Street and addressing inequality by changing the tax code. However, in his State of the State address, he moved leftwards, proposing spending the state's $2.3 billion windfall from court settlements to house the poor and homeless, freeze Thruway tolls, and facilitate more municipal contracting with minority and women-owned businesses.

He called for raising the minimum wage to $15, cutting small-business taxes, boosting the environmental protection fund and increasing school aid by about a billion dollars. He also proposed eclipsing the Rockefeller era's vast building projects with a slew of plans, but except for the Gateway Tunnel, a planned and necessary Amtrak connection between New Jersey and New York City, the funding for all these projects is more wish than fact.

Of course, Cuomo couldn't hold back from his bitter, infantile feud with Mayor Bill De Blasio by proposing that New York City would have to account for hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for CUNY and Medicaid that the state usually provided in the past. The result of these expenses could drain the city's surplus and leave us with a budget hole.

The calculating Cuomo, who faces less angry and intractable opponents than Obama, speaks of a government that continues to progress and provides a set of proposals that will hopefully make the state a better place.

Obama in his last State of the Union offered a more elevated vision of unity to a divided nation, an optimistic portrait of the nation after seven years of his leadership, despite economic inequality at home and the continuing threat of terrorism abroad. Freed from his quixotic attempt to be bipartisan, I know we will see a more courageous, assertively liberal president in his last year in office.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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