The Real State Of The Union

From The Best Minds In America, Bold Solutions To The Problems Politicians Dare Not Address


By Ted Halstead

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Resulting from a collaboration between The Atlantic Monthly magazine and the New America Foundation, The Real State of the Union features 18 original essays on the most important facets of our national well-being. Written by many of our nation’s most insightful observers, the essays provide an objective and penetrating analysis of the most critical challenges facing America as well as innovative solutions to many of them. The State of the Union Address is among the nation’s oldest rituals, but one that has deviated from its original purpose: Rather than a candid assessment of the country or a meaningful self-evaluation by the current administration, it has become a political spectacle marked by self-congratulation and spin. The Real State of the Union seeks to turn an empty exercise into a more meaningful national dialogue about the social, political, and economic health of our country. Rejecting the political correctness of both parties, this volume tells the American public what it needs to know about the real problems that plague the country and why the political solutions that are offered too often fail to address the real nature of those problems.




From the Best Minds in America,
Bold Solutions to the Problems
Politicians Dare Not Address


A New America Book, Published by Basic Books
A Member of the Perseus Books Group
New York


Ted Halstead

Let all of us pause now, think back, consider carefully the meaning of our national experience. Let us draw comfort from it and faith and confidence in our future as Americans.

The Nation’s business is never finished. The basic questions we have been dealing with . . . present themselves anew. That is the way of our society. Circumstances change and current questions take on different forms, new complications, year by year. But underneath the great issues remain the same—prosperity, welfare, human rights, effective democracy, and, above all, peace.

—Harry S. Truman, State of the Union Address,

January 7, 1953

ONE OF THE OLDEST traditions in American politics—spanning from George Washington to George W. Bush—is the yearly delivery by the President of what used to be known as the “Annual Message.” Renamed the “State of the Union” address in 1945, it provides a precious opportunity for the President to shape the national debate by presenting his assessment of the health of our republic and advancing specific recommendations for reform. The history of the United States—as seen through the eyes of each President—is told in these addresses.

In recent decades, unfortunately, the State of the Union address has become both shallower and more partisan. It is now largely an exercise in self-congratulatory rhetoric and showmanship, loaded with snappy sound bites and made-for-television tributes to special guests planted in the audience. It wasn’t always this way. If you go back and read the annual addresses of Washington, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Truman, or Eisenhower—to name just a few—they are remarkably candid and substantive by today’s standards. The words quoted above from Harry Truman’s final address reflect this seriousness of spirit.

The trivialization of the State of the Union address is all the more troubling in light of the challenges that America faces today. This is a moment of consequence in American history. When Al Gore faced off with George W. Bush in the 2000 election, most Americans could be forgiven for thinking that there was not that much at stake: after all, we were basking in the afterglow of our nation’s longest economic expansion and considered ourselves largely immune to the dangers plaguing the rest of the world. All of that suddenly changed, of course, as the result of the tragedy of 9/11, the implosion of the Nasdaq bubble, a stream of corporate scandals, the erosion of jobs at home, and two costly foreign wars in rapid succession.

In contrast to the election of 2000, then, it seems clear that a great deal will be at stake in the election of 2004. Yet for all the new and daunting challenges confronting America at home and abroad, neither Democrats nor Republicans have proven capable of offering a coherent, honest, or forward-looking agenda to guide our country. More concerned with petty partisanship than with pragmatic progress, our contemporary political leaders have shown themselves to be incapable of solving—and in some cases even acknowledging—the overarching dilemmas of our time.

One of those is the impending retirement of the baby boom generation, which given our low personal savings rate, will put tremendous strain on the public purse in years ahead. Instead of facing this challenge honestly, both parties recently colluded to make it worse by supporting a large-scale expansion of Medicare, the most insolvent of the entitlement programs. It is as if a fire truck pulled up to a burning house, only to spray gasoline on the flames instead of water. Their rationale is to pander to the elderly voting bloc while avoiding for as long as possible the unpleasantness of stating the obvious: The coming entitlement crunch will force us to cut benefits, raise taxes, or both.

Another challenge is how to maintain a broad-based middle-class in the face of increasing global competition that is driving down the cost of labor and capital while eroding our manufacturing base. Neither the supply-side tax-cuts, Keynesian spending binge and economic protectionism of the GOP, nor the Clintonian combination of financial liberalization, fiscal discipline, and mild redistributionism provide adequate formulas for ensuring that the new tide continues to rise and to lift all boats in the process. That America succeeded in building the world’s first mass middle-class was not by accident; it owed a great deal to a series of public policy interventions that were as bold as they were enlightened. Preserving and expanding our middle class in the future will require no less.

Profound structural inefficiencies—especially in the ways we approach health care, education, and energy use—also threaten our collective well-being. Although America spends more per capita on health care and K-12 education than virtually any other nation, our return on these investments is uniquely low: spiraling health care costs alongside inadequate quality and coverage, and educational outcomes inferior to those of other advanced nations alongside vast disparities in school funding and student achievement within our own borders. Meanwhile, we consume far more energy inputs per unit of economic outputs than our closest competitors, placing us at a considerable economic and environmental disadvantage.

Just as the American economy is undergoing tectonic transformations in the post-industrial age, so is the American community. And just as our politicians are failing to respond adequately to the former, so too with the latter. The American family, in particular, has changed dramatically in recent decades as more women enter the workforce and as families with no stay-at-home parent become the new norm. Sadly, neither the workplace itself nor government policies have kept pace with these changes, making it ever more difficult for Americans to balance their work and family responsibilities. At the same time, the very identity of our nation is constantly evolving, largely as a result of population aging, increased immigration, and high levels of racial inter-marriage. These developments carry good news and bad: The coming of a post-minority America, for instance, is cause for celebration, while the growing alienation of Muslim Americans is cause for concern.

When it comes to foreign policy, both Republicans and Democrats seem equally convinced that countering terrorism is now the defining challenge to the world order and that preserving America’s dominance in the world is the best grand strategy. Yet there is a strong case to be made that the greatest threat to the world order could come from a global economic collapse, and that we can best advance our national interest through pooled sovereignty and a multilateral division of labor. At the same time, neither party has set forth a convincing strategy to wean ourselves from an over-dependence on foreign capital, or to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction without abandoning the internationalism and alliance-building that enabled us to safely pass the first nuclear age.

More broadly, both major parties lack a vision able to strengthen and unify the American people in the face of the fragmenting and destabilizing forces remaking America. The inevitable result is an erosion of trust, whether trust in our fellow citizens, in politicians, or in private or public institutions. Today, neither party is even able to articulate an updated vision of citizenship or patriotic responsibility, as became painfully obvious in the wake of 9/11 when the majority of Americans were more than willing to make sacrifices for the good of their nation, if only their leaders would point the way.

To judge from our political establishment, it would seem that America is a nation bitterly divided along partisan lines. Likewise, it would seem that we are beset by collective problems that are simply intractable. Neither assumption is accurate.

The American people are not nearly as polarized as their elected officials. To the contrary, polls consistently reveal that most Americans consider themselves to be “moderates” rather than “liberals” or “conservatives,” and that more identify as “independents” than as Republicans or Democrats. Given the recent performance of both parties, it is hardly surprising that so many Americans feel alienated from politics. But alienation and polarization are two very different conditions, though the former will only worsen if politicians fail to cure the latter.

It would be no less of a mistake to assume that our nation’s foremost problems are beyond remedy. They may be—if the range of potential solutions is limited by antiquated or partisan ideologies. But if we are willing to look at these problems anew, from an unbiased and practical perspective, there is reason for optimism. Many of these problems, in fact, suddenly seem much more solvable. That is the basic contention of these essays.

THIS BOOK WAS CONCEIVED through a unique partnership between the New America Foundation and The Atlantic Monthly— with the goal of renewing the great annual tradition of reflection on the true state of the American union. It invites the reader to ask two far-reaching questions: How are we really doing as a country? What practical steps could we take to improve our national condition?

What follows are 32 essays on many of the most important facets of our nation’s well-being, written by some of the most talented and original minds of our day. What ties them together is a commitment to an honest search for innovative and non-partisan solutions. Most essays begin with the best empirical data in their subject area, and seek to uncover the root causes of the problem at hand. In many cases, the authors offer solutions that are simultaneously bold and practical. These solutions seldom fit comfortably in the familiar boxes of left and right. If there is a discernable ideological bent to them, its name is the radical center.

All authors—with the exception of Matthew Miller, Jonathan Rauch, and Paul Starobin—are directly affiliated with the New America Foundation, whether as Fellows, senior staff, or members of our Board of Directors. Two-thirds of the essays that appear in this book were first published in the January 2003 or 2004 issues of The Atlantic Monthly.

The Real State of the Union reflects the commitment of the New America Foundation to escaping the ideological orthodoxies of the twentieth century in order to do justice to the greatest challenges facing the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first. Only by embracing a new spirit of heterodoxy, creativity, and pragmatism can we learn what the actual state of the union is—and how much better it could be.


The State of the Union Moment

James Fallows

It is startling how out-of-date and out-of-touch our official politics has become.

AT KABUKI PERFORMANCES in Japan audiences sometimes exclaim “Matte mashita!” during crucial points in the drama. In context this means something like “Here it comes!” or “This is what we’ve been waiting for!” and it greets the best-known lines in the play. If American theatergoers followed the same custom, people would yell “Matte mashita!” when they heard “To be or not to be . . .” in Hamlet or “I’ll be back” in a Terminator movie.

In American political culture, which displays some of the same affection for formulaic stagecraft, the theatrical highlight of the year is the State of the Union address. Presidents have presented Congress with reports on the state of national affairs since the republic’s beginning, as required by the Constitution. But since Woodrow Wilson established the modern custom of a President’s delivering the report in person, in a speech to a special session of Congress, the State of the Union address has evolved into the main kabuki-like ceremony in our national politics.

Even more than the inauguration, the State of the Union has become a ritual celebration of the glory of the presidency. At an inauguration the excitement surrounding the President is often tempered by the pathos of an old President’s being ushered off the scene. The State of the Union is all about the incumbent.

With live TV cameras on them, representatives and even proud senators fidget in a packed House chamber until the President arrives. Foreign diplomats troop in to pay the world’s respects to America’s leader. The military chiefs of staff, in their uniforms, are there; the justices of the Supreme Court, in their robes; the members of the Cabinet— minus one, who will take over the government in case of disaster. Honored guests, whose achievements will be praised in the speech, are seated near the President’s spouse. With all the supporting cast in place, the sergeant at arms comes to the chamber’s door—and the President makes his way toward the dais through a crowd of cheering politicians from both parties, many reaching to touch him as he moves by. He stands at the front of the chamber until the cheers finally die—and as soon as they do, the speaker of the House plays his role in the drama. He tells his colleagues that he has the “high privilege and the distinct honor in presenting to you the President of the United States.” As he utters these words, another minutes-long standing ovation begins.

On it goes for most of the next hour: the President’s backers cheering the partisan items in his list of proposals, the opposition sitting noticeably still at those moments. The Vice President and the speaker of the House, onstage props visible whenever the President is on camera, try to sit still at all times. Perhaps at the beginning of the speech, perhaps at the end, the President builds toward his Matte mashita! line. “The state of the union,” he tells the crowd—which prepares to cheer, knowing that the expected sentence has arrived—“is good.

Or perhaps it’s not just “good.” It was good “with room for improvement” according to Gerald Ford as he prepared to leave office in 1977; and it was “sound” according to Jimmy Carter the following year. For Bill Clinton in 1995, speaking after his party had been routed in midterm elections, the state of the union was merely “stronger than it was two years ago.” By the end of his second term Clinton was ready to declare the state of the union “the strongest it has ever been.” George W. Bush began his first State of the Union address, as bombs fell in Afghanistan, with the speech’s punch line, an artful two-sentence version of the usual one-liner: “As we gather tonight, our nation is at war, our economy is in recession, and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers. Yet the state of our union has never been stronger.”

In its substance as in its procedural pomp, the State of the Union address has come to represent all that is ritualistic and insiderish about modern politics. It is the one major speech a President is sure to deliver each year. Therefore, the day after one address has been given, much of the government gears up to influence the content of the next year’s. The impetus comes in the coded language of Washington: a sentence here about the “high priority” of some new education program, which can be used to defend an extra $100 million in budget requests; a mention there of a “strong new partnership” with a certain country, which can settle a dispute between the State Department and the Pentagon. Speechwriters dread this speech as they do no other assignment (or at least I did, when working for Jimmy Carter), because so many forces conspire to make it a clotted, committee-bred document whose hidden signals the ordinary listener will completely miss. The closest thing to a memorable line in recent addresses was Bill Clinton’s declaration, in 1996, that “the era of big government is over.”

THE ODDITY OF THIS SITUATION is that although the State of the Union in the Washington sense has become stylized and removed from everyday American concerns, the real state of the union is of enormous social and cultural interest. Pollsters have known for years that one question above all indicates Americans’ satisfaction with public life and confidence in their leaders—the question that is typically phrased as “In general, do you feel that things in America are moving in the right direction or the wrong direction?” This is another way of asking whether the state of the union is sound—and when answering the question, people consider a wide range of concerns: How they and their family members are doing, materially and spiritually. What they observe or believe about others. What they think the future will bring. To what extent they feel in control of events, rather than feeling like objects or victims. Some components of this real state of the union are purely private matters, but many others are part of the environment that public life is supposed to help determine. The education system, the robustness of the national economic base, the physical safety of citizens, their pride in what the nation stands for—these and many other areas involve politics to some degree.

That the components of the real state of the union are complex and subjective doesn’t mean they can’t be discussed—and in many cases measured. An attempt to think broadly and originally about these elements of national well-being lies behind this special section. Some of the essays that follow offer specific action plans; others identify trends to watch. And although they are political in the broadest sense, most don’t bother with comparisons of the Democratic and Republican positions on the subject at hand. The assumption is that in most of the areas under discussion the major-party platforms are essentially fundraising tools or ways to organize blocs of interest groups.

Lasting principles and clear, simple statements do rise above the specifics of any situation. But it is startling how out-of-date and out-of-touch each party’s platform seems when compared with the details in the essays that follow. Indeed, if one theme emerges from these essays, it is how disconnected our official politics has become from the real-world, fast-changing, interesting-in-their-details elements that constitute our national welfare.

Americans have traditionally been vain about their pragmatism. Let the French have their philosophes, the British and the Germans their aristocrats who stand on ceremony. Ours would be the culture of the doer, the tinkerer, the keen observer who noticed what actually worked. In ideal form the American leader would be a Benjamin Franklin, with lofty interests but an unshakably realistic bent. Better, he would be a Lincoln: a true visionary who also recognized that the drunken General Grant was the best man for the job.

Lincoln, too, issued State of the Union messages, at a time when the existence of the union itself was in question. His second, in 1862, is the most memorable. “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present,” he said. “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.” We offer these essays in that spirit.

The American Paradox

Ted Halstead

The richest and most powerful country is also the one with the highest levels of poverty, homicide, and infant mortality among modern democracies. A case for revising our social contract.

NOTHING ILLUSTRATES AMERICA’S profound contradictions more starkly than a comparison with other advanced democracies: among these the United States is either the very best or the very worst performer on a wide range of social and economic criteria. We are simultaneously the leader and the laggard among our peers—almost always exceptional, almost never in the middle.

Without question we are the richest, most powerful, and most creative nation on the planet. Our economic and military might stems from our embrace of a particularly high-octane brand of capitalism, supported by financial markets that are deeper and broader than any others, labor markets that are more flexible, and a culture of entrepre-neurialism that is unparalleled. These attributes have turned America into the world’s unrivaled engine of innovation and wealth creation. We boast more patent applications than the entire European Union; more Nobel Prizes, in recent decades, than the rest of the world combined; and more business start-ups per capita than almost every other advanced democracy. One in twelve Americans will start his or her own business, evincing another outstanding American trait—our great tolerance for risk. And our export of movies, television shows, music, and fast-food chains makes us, for better or worse, the dominant cultural force on the globe.

But like the Roman god Janus, America has two faces. Despite being the richest nation on the planet, we suffer from higher rates of poverty, infant mortality, homicide, and HIV infection, and from greater economic inequality, than other advanced democracies. We have far more uninsured citizens, and a lower life expectancy. On a per capita basis the United States emits considerably more greenhouse gases and produces more solid waste. We spend more per student on K-12 education than almost all other modern democracies, yet our students perform near the bottom on international tests. We have the highest rates of teen pregnancy and among the highest proportions of single parents, and American parents have the least amount of free time to spend with their children; indeed, the average American works nine weeks more each year than the average European. Our performance on many social indicators is so poor, in fact, that an outsider looking at these numbers alone might conclude that we were a developing nation.

How do we reconcile these two faces of America? To a remarkable degree the United States seems to have exchanged social cohesion and a broad-based middle class for economic dynamism and personal freedom. Have we abandoned what used to be referred to as the common good?

SOME BELIEVE THAT our bifurcated national condition represents a necessary and acceptable tradeoff; others believe it is a Faustian bargain. Even those who would tolerate a considerable amount of social fragmentation as the price of prosperity, however, must concede that this bargain is yielding ever diminishing returns. Our economic growth over the past decade has been weaker than it was in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet our levels of economic inequality and social breakdown have clearly worsened. In short, we are producing fewer of the goods and more of the bads, suggesting that our nation is increasingly out of balance. What is more, the very idea of a necessary tradeoff between our social and our economic well-being is un-American. It runs against the idealistic foundation on which our republic was built.


On Sale
Apr 20, 2009
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

Ted Halstead

About the Author

Ted Halstead is President of the New America Foundation and is the author (with Michael Lind) of The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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