Demonstrating, again, that yes, for a politician he can give a good speech, President Obama held his ground in his required State of the Union address this evening. Acknowledging the hard times from which he was speaking, he rolled out a laundry list of things done, things around the corner to do, and took attention-deficit-disorder-Americans on a brief leap back so they might remember just what a mess he’d inherited on taking office. Taking a jab at the Republicans, who often seemed to take a deer-in-headlight stance (should I applaud, should I stand, will we all look like the Party of No if we uniformly sit here stolidly looking grumpy?) with which Obama played a bit, he underlined that the cut-taxes mantra had been tried 8 years and landed us in the present. And tossing a bone to one disgruntled segment of his year-ago base he said he’d get don’t-ask-don’t-tell changed while the cameras showed the military chiefs sitting glumly.
Outlining his long-term economic intentions, he said it was necessary to get health-reform done as one part of it, and listed a range of pleasers for the left: high-speed trains, green industries, solar this; but then he handed out equal opportunity rightwing pleasers too: nuclear power plants, clean coal, off-shore drilling. Rattling bills and programs and numbers, he risked playing the cliché politician/Democrat, handing out bon bons as vote buyers. And, as an election year rolls in, he chided the assembled politicians for doing precisely what he was doing.
Unlike his predecessor, who could find no faults in himself or his policies, he acknowledged errors on his part as he closed with an appeal for Americans to quit bickering, stop running Washington as a non-stop electioneering stage, and get down to the job at hand.
Throughout all this Joe Biden sat smiling, nodding, leaping to applaud, and otherwise playing lap-dog. Ditto Nancy Pelosi. The Congressmen and Senators on the Democratic side jumped to their feet frequently and shouted, as if the talk were a pep rally, while for the most part – except when Obama said he’d have a tax exemption for small businesses and a few other such things, like the off-shore drilling bit – the Republicans maintained party discipline and glumly sat.
For me this kind of political spectacle all rings phony, not really different than watching the old Soviet Politburo gathering for the obligatory genuflections, hand-waves, hand-shakes and all the other boiler plate of political theater. Whether at this late date it will play in Peoria or not, I am skeptical. Too many lost jobs, lost mortgages, too sour a collective atmosphere and too many broken promises. While exuding his charms and even a touch of wit, and making a case for his programs, he’s probably lost too much of his base in the last months to get them back. Eighteen months ago he could play the quasi-innocent outsider, which was a major ingredient in his capacity to generate enthusiasm and hope. Twelve months in office, he’s squandered that energy on many dubious decisions – from keeping those establishment insiders of Wall Street and the Pentagon at his side and acting on their advice, to more or less dismissing the concerns of the latte-liberal sorts, not to mention skewering the delusions of those closet radicals who were actually anticipating Change You Can Believe In. The great balloon of hope that gathered a year ago in Washington for the inauguration is now trampled on the ground of practical realities. It could have been otherwise, but it would have taken a very different approach, one which perhaps is outside of Mr Obama’s ken.
The Republican rejoinder, apparently done in the nearby Virginia State Capitol, was an embarrassment of the first rank, as the carefully choreographed putti angels of the public neatly surrounded the speaker, lower left a Caucasian military man, upper left an hispanic woman, upper right an Asian man, lower right a black man, all of them dutifully nodding assent as Governor Bob McDonald stiffly delivered mind-numbingly empty words. I suspect the racial tick-tack-toe layout did not play well in Bubbaland, and would have been far too obvious a ploy for any stray independents inclined to drift that way. The cynicism was overpowering.