It was too short. It was too long. It was a masterwork. It was a stumble. It was too hot. It was too cold. It was too partisan. It was too conciliatory. It had something for everyone. It had something that everyone could object to.
The hot topic in the blogosphere this morning is President Obama’s State of the Union message after a year in office, given last night, and I may as well add my two cents to the commentary. Rather than launch into a detailed dissection of the speech, I’ll briefly consider just two questions: a) what did President Obama accomplish last night? b) did he do what he needed to?
Last night President Obama gave a State of the Union message that could well have been given in 2006 or 2000 or 1994. If, indeed, we are in the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930’s, shouldn’t the State of the Union reflect that? Last night’s address was more a lecture than a speech and it maintained the temperate tone which has been characteristic of of President Obama and which I continue to appreciate. It was also the laundry list of proposals we’ve come to expect from State of the Union messages, many of which will never be heard of again.
Compare the speech with the speeches given at the end of the first year of their presidencies by presidents who found the country in economic straits similar to or even worse than those in which President Obama finds the country today.
Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, Senators, and Representatives in Congress, I come before you at the opening of the regular session of the Seventy-third Congress not to make requests for special or detailed items of legislation; I come, rather, to counsel with you, who, like myself, have been selected to carry out a mandate of the whole people in or order that without partisanship you and I may cooperate to continue the restoration of our national well-being and, equally important, to build on the ruins of the past a new structure designed better to meet the present problems of modern civilization.
Such a structure includes not only the relations of industry and agriculture and finance to each other but also the effect which all of these three have on our individual citizens and on the whole people as a nation.
Now that we are definitely in the process of recovery, lines have been rightly drawn between those to whom this recovery means a return to old methods — and the number of these people is small — and those for whom recovery means a reform of many of our ways of thinking, and therefore, of may of our social and economic arrangements.
Civilization cannot go back; civilization must not stand still. We have undertaken new methods. It is our task to perfect, to improve, to alter when necessary, but in all cases to go forward. To consolidate what we are doing, to make our economic and social structure capable of dealing with modern life, is the joint task of the legislative, the judicial, and the executive branches of the National Government.
and take note of this:
Disorder is not an American habit. Self-help and self-control are the essence of the American tradition – not of necessity the form of that tradition, but its spirit. The program itself comes from the American people.
The emphasis is mine. It’s an excellent speech, strong both in rhetoric and substance, that calls not just for a change in policies but for a change of heart.
Seldom have the stakes been higher for America. What we do and say here will make all the difference to autoworkers in Detroit, lumberjacks in the Northwest, steelworkers in Steubenville who are in the unemployment lines; to black teenagers in Newark and Chicago; to hard-pressed farmers and small businessmen; and to millions of everyday Americans who harbor the simple wish of a safe and financially secure future for their children. To understand the state of the Union, we must look not only at where we are and where we’re going but where we’ve been. The situation at this time last year was truly ominous.
The last decade has seen a series of recessions. There was a recession in 1970, in 1974, and again in the spring of 1980. Each time, unemployment increased and inflation soon turned up again. We coined the word “stagflation” to describe this.
Government’s response to these recessions was to pump up the money supply and increase spending. In the last 6 months of 1980, as an example, the money supply increased at the fastest rate in postwar history–13 percent. Inflation remained in double digits, and government spending increased at an annual rate of 17 percent. Interest rates reached a staggering 21.5 percent. There were 8 million unemployed.
Late in 1981 we sank into the present recession, largely because continued high interest rates hurt the auto industry and construction. And there was a drop in productivity, and the already high unemployment increased.
This time, however, things are different. We have an economic program in place, completely different from the artificial quick fixes of the past. It calls for a reduction of the rate of increase in government spending, and already that rate has been cut nearly in half. But reduced spending the first and smallest phase of a 3-year tax rate reduction designed to stimulate the economy and create jobs. Already interest rates are down to 15 3/4 percent, but they must still go lower. Inflation is down from 12.4 percent to 8.9, and for the month of December it was running at an annualized rate of 5.2 percent. If we had not acted as we did, things would be far worse for all Americans than they are today. Inflation, taxes, and interest rates would all be higher.
Rhetorically, this speech was enormously strong, particularly in the center section. Together, repeated at the beginning of seven successive sentences, is an example of the device known as anaphora and it is used effectively in this speech to convey a sense of common commitment.
That’s a feature shared by both the Roosevelt and Reagan speeches, the emphasis on common effort, purpose, and values, and something I found lacking in last night’s address. Last night’s address in contrast continued President Obama’s undue emphasis on I.
In my view what President Obama succeeded doing last night is what we’ve seen from him several times in the recent past. He has doubled down. He has signaled that he will neither move to the center nor will he shore up his support with his base.
However, I don’t believe that President Obama accomplished what he needed to do last night. Clearly, he did not rally the troops. In the Washington Post Harold Meyerson observed:
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.
That’s support but not a ringing endorsement, a common theme among President Obama’s supporters. From the blogosphere:
Oliver Willis’s Well, that speech was better than I thought it would be is, again, not a ringing endorsement. It echoes the it’s better than nothing battlecry of those who support the healthcare reform bill making its way through the Congress. As much a sigh of relief as support.
As for Obama, I thought it was just great. A reminder that Obama is fantastic at delivering formal speeches and has a fantastic speechwriting stuff. The past twelve months are a reminder that giving fantastic setpiece speeches has limits as a political strategy. You drop out of speech mode into the realm of cold, hard vote-counting and I don’t think anything’s really changed in that regard.
I’m not really much of a SOTU connoisseur, and I was focused almost completely on healthcare in this one. On that front, I’d give Obama a B-.
President Obama’s speeches have always been notable for both their exquisite prose and their unusually high intellectual level. Tonight’s speech, while probably as effective as such speeches can be, was neither.
The dropoff between rhetoric penned by Obama and that by his staff, always noticeable, was especially so tonight. When he declared, “health care experts who know our system best consider this approach a vast improvement over the status quo,” I wondered if his budget freeze had already claimed the entire White House speechwriting staff.
By my reckoning President Obama devoted more time in the SOTU message to healthcare reform than any other single issue and said, essentially, nothing new. The message appeared to be pass the bill because it’s the bill that’s being discussed, ignoring other, sounder approaches, e.g. Wyden-Bennett. Did he convince anyone, shore up any flagging spirits, gain any new Congressional votes? I don’t think so. Is the advice to leave it to the experts reassuring or is it the equivalent of don’t trouble your pretty little heads?
Equally clearly, the address didn’t enlist any support from President Obama’s opponents. I won’t bother linking to reactions from the Right Blogosphere. There are lots of them here. Some are pretty scathing.
Did President Obama boost his support from independents and centrists? We’ll need to look at the overnights and responses in the coming days.
I think not. President Obama’s current problem is not that he hasn’t gotten his message out. Lord knows he’s gotten his message out. The problem is not merely one of style or communicating more clearly. It’s the substance that needs fine-tuning.