Every President faces the ghosts of Presidential addresses, States of the Union, Inauguration addresses past. President Obama, in particular, is saddled by the specter of his own past speeches along with those of Bill Clinton, Jack Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and FDR. We remember "I have a dream...", "We have nothing to fear but fear itself...", and "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country..." because they moved the nation to action. We crave that inspiration from our leaders. We ask President Obama to match those who came before and inspire with every major speech.
So, we have the State of the Union. The stagecraft of the State of the Union is designed to do that, inspire. A joint session of Congress, joined by the Justices of the Supreme Court, top military leaders, and special guests - ordinary Americans with a quintessential American story. The Sargent-at-Arms introducing the President with a shout, "Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States of America. An hour and thousands of words later we debate where the speech fits in the canon of Presidential addresses.
But what about the substance?
President Obama's second State of the Union: good, not great. It's an interesting time for the President. His party took a drubbing in the November elections, but he was able to motivate Democrats to accomplish a fair amount during the lame duck session in December. He's now faced with a Republican majority in the House who promptly repealed his landmark healthcare legislation and don't seem too inclined to pass a bills or budgets with a shot at becoming law. He just hosted a state visit from China at a moment when talk of America's decline and China's rise is all the rage. He's taking to the middle and his administration is shifting into campaign mode as a number of top advisers leave. Unemployment is still high, people are worried about their futures, and there is a broad debate about the role of government. His speech and the proposals he made reflected these worries in a fairly moderate way.
First, the good. The President spent a lot of time on the challenge our of time - education. He reintroduced us to Race to the Top and reiterated that we are finally moving beyond No Child Left Behind without compromising standards. It was in the education section that President Obama had his "I believe this nation should commit itself...to landing a man on the moon" with this:
"And over the next ten years, with so many Baby Boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math."
And his "Ask not..." moment here:
In fact, to every young person listening tonight who’s contemplating their career choice: If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child – become a teacher. Your country needs you.
Education is the challenge we face. We're losing right now. Too many young Americans don't graduate, let along think about college. We have too many "dropout mills" and too many of our teachers have outlived their usefulness, yet are impossible to replace or retrain. If we want to "win the future" (terrible phrase) we need to figure out how to do this. Every President is an "education President", but President Obama just might be able to get us to where we need to go. As he said last night, "When a child walks into a classroom, it should be a place of high expectations and high performance".
The President also spoke of immigration reform. He pledged to work with Congress to protect our borders and address the people who are currently "living in the shadows". The choice of language is interesting and implies that he actually wants to figure out how to bring undocumented workers and their families out of the shadows and into society and not deport 20 million U.S. residents. He also seemed to be spoiling for a fight over the DREAM Act. It's good to hear, again, that the White House is going to fight to ensure that kids, and this country, are not punished for the actions of their parents.
"Recent events have shown us that what sets us apart must not just be our power – it must be the purpose behind it. In South Sudan – with our assistance – the people were finally able to vote for independence after years of war. Thousands lined up before dawn. People danced in the streets. One man who lost four of his brothers at war summed up the scene around him: “This was a battlefield for most of my life. Now we want to be free.”"
China loomed throughout the speech. The President seems to want us to be in awe of what China has accomplished while at the same time assuring us that we don't have to worry about it. His remark that "...our students don’t just memorize equations, but answer questions like “What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?”" was a subtle swipe at China. At the same time he let us know that we have fallen behind China in "innovation" (a word he used too often) in certain areas and we needed to scrape our way back to the top.
There was more boilerplate, moderately liberal ideas like electric cars and clean energy. Lots of lofty talk about the idea that is America and other vaguely nationalistic concepts that make it into every speech. It was a roadmap - just one that keeps to the center lane.
There were a few curious moments. The President rightly name-checked the repeal of DADT, but followed with the false equivalency of asking colleges to rescind their ban on military recruitment. Many colleges have banned ROTC and military recruiting because of DADT, some because of the wars, some because they don't believe that a campus is an appropriate venue for recruitment (high schools are a bit iffy too). Private colleges don't need to be admonished by a President for making a decision of conscience.
The spending freeze is a Republican idea, which might have some merit if we are also going to raise certain taxes. The tens of billions in reduced defense spending is 89 billion which amounts to about 13% of spending and was already identified by the Pentagon. The cuts are not new, but will still irritate the hawks. The President also couldn't resist boxing himself in on earmarks. Earmarks make up a very small percentage of the annual budget. The money will be spent anyway - it will just be given out in a competitive grant process by a Federal Agency. Earmarks are why we elect legislators. They are supposed to bring money and clout to their districts and states. Pledging to not sign any bill that contains earmarks is something that the President won't be able to uphold. And the Republicans will call him on it every time he does.
Finally, the President didn't bother to mention poor people. The Democratic party never speaks about poor people anymore - it's middle class this, middle class that. Unfortunately, the middle class is shrinking and not into the upper class. More and more people are becoming poor, falling below the poverty line each day. When the tax cuts were extended the only people who faced an increase were poor people (the Making Work Pay credit was not renewed). Last night we should have heard about what we are going to do for the 99 weekers, for the families who aren't middle class. We needed to hear about increasing access to the Earned Income Tax Credit, how we're going to house the millions of homeless individuals and families who have fallen even deeper into the cracks during the recession. The Democrats used to talk about the War on Poverty. They don't anymore. Last night was a missed opportunity to stake out how we are going to ensure that more people don't fall into the never-ending cycle of poverty. The middle class will recover, the poor and homeless - they won't. And the spending freeze will be on their backs.
As for the two "responses"Republicans:
Representative Paul Ryan looked smarmy. He smirked and seemed to be condescending to us. It wasn't nearly as bad as Governor Jindal's, "Kenny from 30 Rock" rebuttal. The problem with Paul Ryan is that he is a very intelligent and thoughtful Representative. Unfortunately, he holds some fairly extreme position. He is a not only a believer in limited government, but a government that is small enough to drown in the bathtub. He hid his positions with ten-dollar words and buzz phrases. It's up to us to untangle them so we don't go down the dangerous road he wants us to.
He mentioned Greece, Ireland, and Portugal but chose not to highlight the fact that the Republicans are going to stage a fight over the debt ceiling. As much as we don't want to, the debt ceiling must be raised in order to avoid becoming Greece or Ireland. If we don't raise the ceiling, we won't be able to pay our bills.
The Representative also spoke about health care. He mentioned that healthcare spending is a large part of our deficit, which is true. He said that "And the president's law is accelerating our country toward bankruptcy." Yes, the new law will increase costs by about 1%. It will increase because we're covering 32 million people who don't have coverage today. That's a lot of people for 1%.
The rest was limited government, limited government, limited government, and protecting the innocent (read: restrict abortion). At least he didn't swear.
The Tea Party:
Representative Bachmann, the camera is over here. Representative, the camera is over here. Michele, the camera is over here.
And you brought charts.
There's not much to say here. The speech was typical "cut everything" Tea Party red meat. It was great to see Representative Bachmann helpfully suggest that the President repeal the healthcare law that he worked so hard on. Especially when repeal would blow an even bigger hole in the deficit that she cares so much about.Read the full text at NPR.org, but more importantly, watch the video at Real Clear Politics