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MILBANK: Let the bleak times roll

  • Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

There is something entirely appropriate about holding the State of the Union address on the same day as Mardi Gras.

One is a display of wretched excess, when giddy and rowdy participants give in to reckless and irresponsible behavior.

The other is a street festival in New Orleans.

There is, thankfully, less nudity in the House chamber for the president's annual address and (slightly) less inebriation. But what occurs beneath the Capitol Dome is as debauched as anything on Bourbon Street.

The State of the Union ritual is by now familiar to most Americans. President Barack Obama leads the Democratic side of the chamber to a series of standing ovations for proposals that everybody knows won't become law. Republicans show their seriousness of purpose by smirking or making stony faces - and by inviting as guests to the speech people such as rocker Ted Nugent, who has called the president a "piece of (excrement)" who should "suck on my machine gun."

But this spectacle, unlike the one in Louisiana, is not all harmless fun. Obama made clear that he is not entertaining serious spending cuts or major entitlement reforms. Republicans, in their responses, repeated that they are not budging on taxes. The hard choices will have to wait for another day.

The standoff gives new meaning to Fat Tuesday: The nation's finances are a mess, but - what the heck? – let's have another round. No wonder a new Washington Post poll found that 56 percent of Americans have a dim view of the country's political system.

Early in his address, Obama pronounced himself "more than halfway towards the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction that economists say we need to stabilize our finances." He blithely proclaimed that the rest of the job could be done by making "modest reforms" to Medicare and "getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off."

He didn't mention that this would leave the country with a historically high debt level - and would be but a temporary fix before health care costs explode in a decade. Departing from his prepared text, Obama challenged the idea that "deficit reduction is a big emergency, justifying making cuts in Social Security."

The opposition, by contrast, was up to the usual antics for such evenings. Democrats across the chamber wore green ribbons to honor the victims of the Newtown, Conn., shootings, as did many Senate Republicans, but no member of the House Republican majority appeared to have joined in the remembrance.


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