Perhaps the best way to evaluate tonight’s State of the Union speech is to speculate about how it will have sounded to independents and centrists. After all, their defection is mainly what has elected Republicans and driven down President Obama’s approval rating.
Since I’m not an independent, it isn’t easy to put myself in their position. However, I do get some assistance from my wife who falls into that category.
As I said earlier today, I believe that the critical mass of independent voters will put little stock in Obama’s speech. They will be focused instead on his deeds and, above all, the economy. But if tonight was an opportunity for Obama to regain favor with independents, I don’t think he seized it.
Certainly, independents will be disappointed if they hoped the president would “pivot.” Other than his ideas (plausible sounding but empty) on deficit reduction and his pitch for building nuclear power plants and drilling off-shore, there was no substantive centrism in the speech. [Note; upon further review of the speech, I would add ethics reform and breaks for small businesses; I don't count filler like supporting community colleges -- it may poll well with focus groups, but it doesn't stick to the ribs.] And Obama continued to talk up Obamacare and cap-and-trade, and, of course, to bad-mouth the banks — all staples of his first year,
In terms of tone, I thought Obama got it right for a while, but then drifted into the kind of borderline nastiness, rank hypocrisy, and excessive self-references that have started to grate on those who once viewed him as post-partisan.
He began by recognizing that Americans are hurting even as he expressed general optimism based on his confidence in the people. This was good stuff, and it was aided, in my view, by the absence of cheap applause lines.
Obama then presented an obligatory (and facially plausible) defense of his economic policies, reminding us (fairly enough) how bad things had looked when he took office. However, he continued to recognize the problem of joblessness. Overall, I think he struck the right balance — claiming modest success without sugarcoating the economic situation.
Then, came the moment of truth when Obama insisted that he would forge ahead with his agenda. But this was a limited, modified moment of truth because the agenda he talked about consisted mostly of innocuous sounding items — financial reform, research and development, nuclear energy, export promotion, and the strengthening of community colleges.
Only after that recitation did Obama talk about “health insurance reform.” And, not surprisingly, it was here that his tone began to degenerate. He was self-referential (“I didn’t take on health care reform because. . .”, I should have explained the legislation better, and “I won’t walk away” from the uninsured). He was condescending (doctors and nurses who know this stuff like my plan). And he was arrogant (“if anyone has a better approach let me know; I’m eager to hear it”). I think independents would have liked it better if Obama had adopted a more proactive approach to finding out what others have to say.
Obama wisely moved from his major leftist agenda item straight into deficit reduction (he argued that the two are related because his massive expansion of coverage will reduce the deficit). Independents probably will have liked the substance of this portion of the speech. However, Obama’s tone continued to go downhill.
For example, he refused to take any blame for our “fiscal hole” — it was all either the result of the mess he inherited or the need to avoid a calamity (i.e., the mess he inherited). Yet, in the very next part of his speech, Obama launched an attack on the Washington blame game and other forms of excessive partisanship. Yet, in virtually the next words out of his mouth, he accused the Republicans of acting in bad faith — i.e., saying “no” just to say “no” and to “further their ambitions.”
Obama claimed to be “speaking to both parties.” But his message to Democrats was “don’t run for the hills” (i.e., follow me) while his message to Republicans was don’t obstruct me. It’s difficult to believe that independents were impressed by this odd version of bipartisanship.
Having just relitigated the Bush years and the first year of his presidency, Obama began his discussion of foreign policy and national security by saying he did not wish to relitigate the past. What he wished to do instead was present a perfunctory laundry list of the kind usually reserved for the back-end of the domestic agenda. In place of vocational training, food stamps, and the equal pay act (which came later). the president breezed through Afghanistan, North Korea, and Iran. The latter nation, he assured us, is more isolated than ever and will face grave consequences if it does not mend its ways.
Obama then presented the back-end of his domestic agenda into which he smuggled a promise to repeal what he called the prohibition on gays serving in the military and what others call “don’t ask, don’t tell.” This idea and a pledge to improve the Veterans Administration were all I heard tonight from the commander-in-chief about our military.
Obama concluded by attacking cynicism. While taking some responsibility for unspecified legislative failures, he argued in essence that he is being held back in his efforts to bring about the change he promised by the cynicism that results from the moral failings of corporations, media, and lobbyists.
And into that unholy mixture, Obama tossed the United States Supreme Court. He did so by attacking the Court’s recent decision on campaign finance reform, which (if I heard him right) he incorrectly characterized as inconsistent with one hundred years of precedent. As a result, those Justices who attended, including those in the majority, were treated to a direct attack by the executive which was then seconded (as Obama knew it would be) by a standing ovation from what looked like a majority of the legislative branch. Thank you for coming.
I’m sure this went down well with Obama’s base, but again, I doubt that independents were impressed. I don’t know whether the first part of this statement applies to the speech as a whole, but I suspect the second part does.
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