It’s the speech the White House Communications Office spends a year writing, and the news media spends a couple days dissecting. It was important enough that the Framers mandated that the president “shall, from time to time, give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” It is crucial for the political momentum of the chief executive in his role as chief policymaker, and it is forceful enough in its impact that Thomas Jefferson refused to deliver it in person to avoid being perceived as too monarchial. And for this president, it was the speech the White House hoped could reboot a disappointing first year in office.
In many ways, President Obama’s first State of the Union address was successful. Mindful of his often stilted, professorial tone, the president ad-libbed in response to the crowd, and delivered the more conciliatory portions of his speech with candor. He did not recapture the rhythm and excitement of his campaign addresses (especially those from the last few months of the presidential race), but he wasn’t the boring, rational law professor again, either. He managed to hit populist notes without seeming trite, academic reasoning without channeling Ben Stein, and delivered some grand passages without straying into ostentatiousness.
It’s hard to avoid comparing the speech to President Reagan’s 1983 State of the Union, when the country faced many of the same challenges. President Obama did not flinch from these challenges, and he did not mince words when it came to our progress. Perhaps he was a bit optimistic about the effectiveness of his policies, especially the stimulus package, but the State of the Union is, first and foremost, the president’s biggest moment as national cheerleader. And though he fell into the familiar presidential pattern of blaming the previous administration for the problems he’s been unable to solve, he also gave credit where credit is due to President Bush’s actions in his last months to save Wall Street firms from utter collapse.
If anything, President Obama’s first State of the Union was a speech for the middle class. The economy took center stage, and he launched into what was the flattest part of the speech, a long list of proposals for drawing the US out of its slump. With a few key omissions, this speech could have been given by President Bush. It was remarkably moderate, and touted policies like tax cuts and spending freezes that appeal to conservatives, with only a couple issues like the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell thrown in to appease the far left of his own party. And, rightly responding to valid criticism that he’s abandoned his promised bipartisan approach for Chicago-style politicking, he reached out to Republicans on health care reform.
But if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know. Let me know. Let me know. I’m eager to see it.
I know many conservatives doubt that sincerity, but from the look on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s face, it seems the president will be hearing from the opposition quite soon.
The Supreme Court, usually just in attendance for tradition’s stake, didn’t receive such a conciliatory overture. One of the more surprising developments of the night was President Obama’s direct condemnation of the recent 5-4 decision for Citizens United v. FEC. According to released transcripts, the president was apprehensive enough about breaking with precedent so drastically that he added “With all due deference to separation of powers” before delivering his remarks.
…last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests –- including foreign corporations –- to spend without limit in our elections. I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I’d urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems.
Though short of a constitutional amendment there’s not much either Congress or the Executive Branch can do about the Court’s unfortunate decision, it underscores the seriousness of the decision’s impact that the White House included the comments in the year’s most high-profile speech.
In all, it was a brave speech. At a time when his job approval ratings suggest serious trouble for his agenda, President Obama did not play it safe. He tweaked the Republicans throughout the speech, of course, but they were not the only targets for his criticism. His call to publish all earmark requests by name on a website before each vote was a thinly veiled slap at the House and Senate Democrats for using earmarks in the most blatant bribery Congress has seen in quite awhile in exchange for votes for the health care reform bills. It seems a bit hypocritical for the head of the Democratic Party to publicly rebuke his colleagues for tactics the White House tacitly approved. But whether it was genuine outrage, or frustration at his inability to wrangle his gatekeepers and the Democratic congressional leadership, or a belated mea culpa, the proposal is a brilliant idea for an administration that strives for increased transparency before a skeptical public.
The most important moment of the night came late in the speech. Like a disappointed dad, the president chided lawmakers for playing politics as a zero-sum game, where winning and losing are all that matters and governing for the good of the people falls by the wayside.
We can’t wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about the other side -– a belief that if you lose, I win. Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can.
The Democrats immediately erupted in applause, and without missing a beat, the president turned to them and said “I’m speaking to both parties now.” And there was silence on the left. It was a beautiful moment for conservative and progressive alike.
Cynicism seems to be much on the public mind lately. In his farewell address on The Tonight Show, Conan OBrien said that above all, he didn’t want his young viewers to become cynical, despite the blatant crooked dealing evident in the late night wars that took his show from him. From time to time, political and social leaders raise the alarm at the increasingly divisive and juvenile tone of cable news media and political backbiting. But even in this Neo-Gilded Age, the kind of frankness and equal opportunity offending the president brought to his State of the Union Address can break through the predictable back and forth. Whether or not it will turn to any kind of true soul-searching that could lead to bipartisan efforts in the nation’s capital remains to be seen, but from time to time, we pause to listen to the nation’s chief executive and wonder, for a few days at least, if it could.