Obama's message was jumbled, but his pitch was perfect
Thematically, President Obama’s State of the Union address Wednesday night was a bit of a jumbled pudding, with left, right and centrist ideas all packed together. Tonally, however, it was a masterpiece. Obama made clear he understood the gravity of the nation’s problems, took a fair share of the responsibility for the failures of the past year, and, having established himself as the most sober man in the room, proceeded to chastise much of the rest of our political and governmental elite for backing off the efforts to solve our problems and, by so doing, eroding Americans’ faith in their government.
He confronted the conservative members of the Supreme Court, seated directly in front of him, for granting corporations more control over our political process than they’ve ever enjoyed. Associate Justice Samuel Alito could be seen shaking his head in disagreement, but when a justice signs on to a decision so corrosive of democracy itself, he should be prepared for some push back.
Obama cautioned a Republican Party united in opposition to his every move that if it persisted in subjecting every issue to a 60-vote senatorial threshold, then it, too, had to assume the responsibility for governing. And without specifying what, exactly, he wants in and what he wants out of health-care reform legislation, Obama made clear to the most craven members of his own party -- Sens. Evan Bayh (Ind.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mary Landrieu (La.), the whole spineless bunch -- that they still have large majorities in both houses of Congress, and that, “people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills.”
He became the tribune of our collective exasperation.
For those who parsed his text, he so often noted that the House had passed key bills on which the Senate still dithered that it was clear he was singling out the Senate for shaming. (Parsing this point was made easier by the applause emanating from Nancy Pelosi every time Obama made this distinction.) For more casual viewers, Obama simply and successfully positioned himself as the guy who had taken on the job when our problems were greater than they had been in many years, who had tried his best to solve them, and who had been thwarted -- as we all had been thwarted, I think he convinced many Democrats and independents -- by a political establishment that had for various reasons shirked its duties. In this sense, the speech was a stunning performance.
Programatically, however, it was all over the map. Politically, it may have had to be all over the map. On the one hand, Obama came before Congress facing much the same disillusion and anger with the Democrats that Bill Clinton faced in the mid-90s, when Clinton went so far as to declare the era of big government over. Obama made no such sweeping declarations, but he did embrace such historically conservative jobs-and-growth ideas as offshore drilling, nuclear energy, and small business tax cuts. Moreover, he made clear that despite the jobs bill he was promoting, he believed most growth would have to come from the private sector -- a clear departure from the Democratic approach to the Depression of the ’30s, when their response to the private sector’s inability to generate jobs was to enact massive public jobs programs. Similarly, when Obama set a goal of doubling our exports, he spoke chiefly of signing trade accords, not of establishing an industrial policy so that we can rebuild enough manufacturing to become again a net exporter.
And, yet, it’s not 1995. Democrats, as Obama pointed out, still have large majorities on both sides of Capitol Hill. And so he did include passages about boosting green manufacturing and rebuilding our infrastructure. He compared, unfavorably, our underinvestment in education and infrastructure and key industries to the quickly rising levels of investment in China, India and Germany. The subtext here was a compelling critique of conservative economics: that by opposing investment in our public sector and aid to key industries, it weakens our ability to compete in the global economy and our power generally.
“China’s not waiting to revamp its economy,” he said. “Germany’s not waiting. India’s not waiting. These nations aren’t standing still. These nations aren’t playing for second place. They’re putting more emphasis on math and science. They’re rebuilding their infrastructure. They are making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs.”
“Well,” he continued, “I do not accept second-place for the United States of America.”
No president has ever delivered so direct a strike to the soft underbelly of contemporary American conservatism, or one that resonates more with Americans’ hopes for their nation.
Similarly, Obama took a tough line on banking regulation, threatening to veto a bill that failed to protect consumers from the banks upon which they depend and to which they loaned trillions over the past two years. He called for a repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on gays and lesbians, perhaps reasoning that with so much energy going into the fight over gay marriage, and with gay marriage opponents protesting loudly that they actually have nothing against homosexuals, now is the time that the ban could be overturned.
More than any president I can recall, Obama used this State of the Union to move left, right and center simultaneously. But his pitch -- and this was no small feat, given the diffuseness of his programmatic message -- was perfect.
| January 28, 2010; 12:42 AM ET
Categories: Meyerson | Tags: Harold Meyerson
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