Despite soaring, focus group-tested verbiage, the State of the Union speech left Barack Obama grounded. He was a politician, not a saint. He was flat, undramatic, unfocused, tired.
The speech was light on good deeds, or any real deeds at all. After a year of painful economic dislocation, he has few accomplishments to mention. There certainly wasn’t any accomplishment to speak of regarding the White House’s holy grail, health care reform.
But the speech also had few genuinely wise sayings. This address will not change the pollster calculus showing the president facing a steady, downward drift.
“We can deliver!” was the best he could give the people. It certainly seemed like an empty promise, coming as it did after a full year of broken promises, national pain and misery, bailouts, government takeovers, backroom deals, stalled 2,000-page health care bills, and persistent unemployment.
“We can deliver!” It addresses the future, not the past. A direct admission of defeat by a once invincible political warrior.
Unspoken were the missed opportunities by a young, rookie administration that entered office with great promises of hope, post-partisan comity, and centrist-oriented accomplishment.
He called for a new “jobs bill,”but a question hung over the chamber. Was it too little, too late? It amounted to a $30 billion payoff to the liberal world who love community banks, the only “good” banks in America. That was chump change in comparison to the invisible and largely ineffective $787 billion stimulus bill, which did keep unemployment below 8%, er no, 10%. His proposed $80 billion second stimulus bill did not open many champagne bottles in the Capitol.
The promise of high-speed transit, green jobs, and rebates to homeowners seems a rather feeble program.
“I want a jobs bill without delay,” the president implored. After a year of his own inaction on job generation?
The speech was a hodgepodge of ideas, cut and pasted to a Word doc. It was a speech of shrinking visions.
SOTU speeches tend to be like that, with different special interests, departments, and cabinet officials all vying to have the president include a message to some special group. It sucked all the vitality out of this speech — so many promises instantly meaningless after Obama delivered them.
He called it “health insurance reform.” Huh? After a scorched-earth debate over a government takeover of health care, his idea of victory is to seek insurance reform? Now this really is a shrinking vision.
Another one: cap-and-trade legislation. It was invisible last night. The reference to climate change was vague. But he did endorse nuclear power, more oil and natural gas drilling, and clean coal. The legacy energy industry lobbyists earned their keep tonight.
Surprisingly, for the first time since he became president, he was in favor of passage of a number of stalled free-trade bills with Colombia, Korea, and Panama. Lobbyists for these countries had to be pleased.
Then again, speaking of lobbyists, his (only in public) vendetta against them continued. He wants to pepper them with many new rules and restrictions — but he can’t go too far, since many retiring or defeated Democrats may turn to this profession after the November elections.
After a year of backroom deals and a total lack of transparency for all the big-ticket legislation, the best Obama offered in the speech is the opening of the White House visitor log.
The proposed three-year freeze of the non-defense discretionary budget is pegged to high 2010 spending levels. It has been ripped to shreds by economists since the president first floated the idea. Obama finally mentioned it in the middle of the speech — there was no applause from either side of the chamber.
He admonished Congress: “We can’t wage a perpetual campaign.” Did David Plouffe write that line?
The president did seem to recognize the existence of an opposition party, promising “monthly meetings” with Republican leadership. I remember when Obama met with the Republican caucus right after his inauguration — a smart move. Then there were no more meetings. We’ll have to see how long this promise will be kept.
The military brass seemed quite unhappy. They didn’t clap about bringing home our boys from Iraq, and they seemed absolutely mortified when Obama pledged to abolish “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
The Supreme Court justices harrumphed when Obama scolded them for rejecting spending limits during federal election campaigns, with Justice Alito looking in danger of cardiac arrest. Juan Williams of Fox News said he thought the scolding of the justices about a policy was “inappropriate.”
On foreign policy, the president was strange. He never mentioned Osama bin Laden once, never mentioned closing Gitmo, didn’t say a word about his decision to stage the KSM trial in New York City. Nothing about the spate of terrorist attacks that have gripped our country since the fall, from the Fort Hood shooting to the Christmas bombing attempt. Simply, not a word about the war on terror.
He spoke passively of the “promise” of liberty in Iran, like a bystander. He declared we would rebuild Haiti, the basket case of the Western Hemisphere, though Clintonian diplomacy failed to change anything on the island nation. But George Clooney and the Hollywood posse are behind the initiative, so it has to be on the right side of the angels.
“We don’t quit,” he promised at the end. “I don’t quit.”
It didn’t seem like a typical, rousing Obama speech, teleprompters and all. It didn’t seem authentic. There was no sentiment, no wise sayings. No proud statement of deeds.
The one good thing about the speech is that it did not reflect the mood of the left this evening. Hours before the speech, Huffington Post’s Dan Froomkin wrote a fantasy Obama SOTU address titled “What Obama Should Say, But Won’t.” This mythical speech called for inserting a dose of left-wing authoritarianism by urging the imposition of a Hugo Chavez-style “Do as I Say” White House policy. Froomkin urged the president to use his executive powers to bypass Congress and get what he wants: “I will take unilateral action where I can and where I can’t, there will be lines drawn in the sand, and there will be consequences for those who do not heed them.”
Thankfully for the nation, he did not say that.