Let us not mince words, nor even chop them loosely: most State of the Unions are, well, completely useless. As useless as the human appendix. As useless as the six layers of weapons-grade saran wrap in which all convenience foods now come encased. And frankly, almost as time consuming. What does a president say in a State of the Union? Mostly, that the State of the Union is swell--or at least, a heck of a lot better than it would be if you'd elected that mouth breather who opposed him last November. He introduces artfully picturesque "ordinary citizens" hand-selected by his political operatives after months of careful screening. Platitudes about America's commitment to democracy are mouthed. Freedom is praised, in the most general terms, but with a thundering delivery that suggests that many of the people in the room might disagree. Uncontroversial policies, so anodyne that they could be opposed only by an Objectivist psychopath, are unveiled. Oppositions are chided for, um, opposing the president's policies. The particulars hardly matter.
But this one is a little bit different, isn't it? These days the Democrats are feeling, well, a little under the weather. I don't know whether America is looking to see whether Obama can muster a rally out of the doldrums that have lately afflicted his party. But the chattering classes certainly are. Can he do it? Unlike the previous occupant of the office, Obama is a master of soaring oratory.
His name was George W. Bush. You voted for him twice, remember? Or does that name bring back bad memories of war, economic destruction and global humiliation?
But State of the Unions are not a super vehicle for the presidential agenda any more. Gone are the days when a president could command the attention of virtually everyone in this vast republic of ours, merely by getting the broadcast networks to air him speaking for an hour. Most Americans will not be watching. The ones that are tend to be the highly informed voters who already have pretty set opinions. No State of the Union has delivered a poll bounce since 1998--and that was the year that America was watching, fascinated, to see whether Bill Clinton would address the issues raised by Ms. Lewinsky. Unfortunately for Obama, he's only been caught with a naked business recession. His speech may be worthy, but it will not likely be worth much at the polls. Nor will it tell us very much that we didn't already know.
Because it's all about the polls, not governance. Like many conservatives, McArdle has reduced democracy to a pissing contest.
The Meet and Greet
We are now in my favorite part of the SOTU: the part where the President walks through an adoring crowd and is applauded either for his ability to shake hands with the men and kiss the women, or for just being, well, Mr. President. There is no better guide to our political culture than this: our president gets the most applause when he is doing nothing but beaming for the camera.
McArdle graces us with more of her undergraduate-level cynicism, and her belief that governments should do nothing but kill foreigners and keep the peasants happy enough to prevent revolt.
Obama leads with D-Day, and how we didn't know back then how it was all going to turn out. In fairness, he came into office at a most unpropitious time. But I think the faster the Democrats get over the notion that Obama is FDR 2.0, the better off we'll all be.
The only one who said Democrats think or want Obama to be FDR 2 is McArdle.
Washington is Broken?
Marc [Ambinder] suggests that the theme of this speech is "Washington is Broken". Is this a wise move? That was, after all, the theme of most of his prior speeches, indeed, the theme of his whole campaign. Obama convinced millions of voters that he could fix the broken-ness, something not in his power to do. Now they're all furious with him, and the rest of us are just as skeptical as we were before. So what good does it do to complain that DC is broken? He is president of the country we have, with the political system we have, not some other place with more felicitous rules.
Yes, pointing out the country has problems that need to be solved during a depression is a stupid, useless idea. Ignoring the economic situation would have been much, much better, and not garnered any criticism at all from facile, antagonistic pundits.
The Stimulus and Jobs
The first of the Amazing Political Whoppers That Cannot Actually Be Disproved emerges: the administration has saved 2 million jobs. That's supposed to vindicate the rather unpopular stimulus bill, which cost about $860 billion. If my math is correct, that means that instead of doing the stimulus, we could have given two million people $400,000 apiece to tide them over while they looked for work--and still come out ahead.
McArdle hates the stimulus and loved the bank bailout. Money for banks, not jobs! That's just what the average tax-payer wants to hear, as her tea-bagger fiance can tell her. I could check her math, but math and McArdle are natural born enemies, and the odds of her success are so low that they can be ignored.
The Jobs Bill
The jobs bill is coming! What the jobs bill might actually look like, however, is depressingly vague. Obama wants a jobs bill on his desk without delay . . . but what will be in it? We can't all develop lucrative new businesses designing windmills or insulating homes. All presidents keep these things to broad outlines, of course, but Obama seems to be delegating any actual details to Congress. That didn't turn out to be a winning strategy with the health care bill, and I'm not sure it will with jobs, either . . . the kind of compromises that legislators make to get things passed then take front and center in the political narrative about the bill. Obama's main contribution cannot simply be bashing the scary Germans and French and Japanese who are going to steal our clean energy jobs unless we pour massive subsidies into the sector.
Government doesn't work and nobody can do anything ever.
The Nuclear Presidency
Nuclear energy . . . opening up offshore oil and gas development . . . clean coal . . . if Obama keeps tacking right, I'm going to get seasick.
No praise for Obama's embrace of McArdle's beloved free market? How ideological of her.
Now Obama gets into the part of his candidacy that I most hated: bashing foreigners and their tricksy imports. But it could be much worse . . . indeed, he said much worse on the campaign trail. It's just confirming what we already knew, which is that the Obama adminstration is not going to meaningfully enhance trade freedom.
He's also not going to embrace unicorns or fairies, which are just as real as McArdle's free markets.
On Health Care
I might be biased, but I don't think this part of the speech is particularly strong. This is a classic professor move that will be well known to the children of academics: I am very smart, so if you disagree with me, it must be because you are very stupid, or I have been insufficiently clear. This doesn't go down with the public at large any better than it does with the children of academics.
Arguing from authority is, of course, McArdle's modus operandi, and she doesn't like it when others steal her schtick.
Financial Reform, The Hard Way
As Josh [Green] notes below, the most interesting part of the speech is where he threatens to veto any financial bill that doesn't really take on the banks. The proposals he unveiled last week to limit the size of bank liabilities, and dismantle their proprietary trading desks, were greeted with acclaim by many financial journalists, but it is widely believed that legislators like Senator Dodd will simply kill them in committee. If he's willing to risk ending up with nothing, that may be smart politics--and perhaps smart regulation. But that's a very daring move for a president who has so far proved extremely reluctant to take on his congress.
You see, when a Democrat hands the banks everything they want he's weak and hypocritical. When a Republican does the same thing, he's saving the free world and global financial system.
It's All Someone Else's Fault, Except for Where I Didn't Make it Sufficiently Clear That it's All Someone Else's Fault
Weakest part of the speech by far is where he claims that anything you dislike about our financial state is the fault of George Bush. Not to defend the Bush deficits, but by the end of 2007, they were down to 1% of GDP, which is basically manageable indefinitely. The big deficit that Barack Obama inherited was the result of a financial crisis that crushed tax revenues, and stimulus/bailout policies that were enacted when one Barack Obama was a Senator.
That's so dishonest I don't know whether she's being clever or stupid.
I'm talking about the part where he indicates that disagreement with his policies is simply due to the fact that he hasn't explained them well enough.
Didn't the right just spend ten years telling us that if you believe hard enough you'll succeed, even when you fail?
Hail Mary Pass
Obama is arguing that legislators should be governing, not setting themselves up for re-election. The era of the permanent campaign is certainly wearying . . . but it's also true that the more details emerge about his health care plan, the less the citizenry likes it. It cannot be true that legislators are supposed to govern entirely without reference to the wishes of their constituents. Also, it is easy to say, as Nancy Pelosi has, that she's willing to lose twenty seats in the house, or for Barack Obama to tell legislators to ignore the electorate, when neither of them is in danger of losing their jobs in November.
It's all about elections, winning and losing, being a failure or being a success, not running the country.
Water Cooler it Is!
But in a parting shot, I will ask how he could have explained his policies, when Congress hadn't written them yet? By the time the policies emerged, people had seen too much of the sausage-making process . . . and involved substantially reneging on important promises he'd made about things like transparency, and the mandate for health care.
She had nothing to do with the sausage-making, of course. It's Obama's fault that he must deal with the Party of No. And lets utterly ignore the fact that Obama is giving the health care industry whatever it wants, just like he did with the banks. But Obama is pretending to be against the banks, and McArdle doesn't like even fake criticism of her
Foreign policy is not my beat, but props for name-checking Reagan on his efforts to speed nuclear disarmament. Very smart politics, and might quiet the sort of Republicans who view anything except bristling aggression as a wimpy metrosexual cop-out.
Because people who automatically call their enemies effeminate are reasonable people who can be mollified with a few flattering words.
Right Makes Might
We also do it because it is right. Best, most passionate line of the night. First glimpse I've seen of the Obama of yesteryear.
The Obama she routinely trashed at the time.
Barack is Back!
Finally he gets to the stirring rhetoric we remember . . . urging America to pull together and try to be a little bit better, as a nation. I kind of want to go out and hug someone, and/or join the Peace Corps. That sounds sarcastic, but I'm not really kidding.
She's a Randian, you know--the former Jane Galt.
Why do we put our whole government in one room where they could all be taken out by a nefarious terrorist attack?
Because it's kind of hard to carry out a massive, planned terrorist attack, unless a lazy moron like Bush is in charge.
Republican Response Preview
Responses to the State of the Union are almost uniformly awful. In recent history, Katherine Sebelius looked and sounded like an early-model Cylon. Then responding to Obama's Not-quite-state-of-the-union address last year, the normally quite personable Bobby Jindal was so wooden, he was practically petrified. This is thought to be an artifact of the format, in which a politician who does, in fact, know how to talk, tries to do so while speaking at length to a round glass circle. So tonight, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell will be giving the response in front of a live audience in the Virginia legislature building. That may mitigate the awfulness, but unfortunately for him, Obama is a very, very tough act to follow.
She's Fair and Balanced.
Republican Attack Machine on Mute
A friend notes that there were fewer boos than usual from the opposition side. And the speech is pretty friendly, which is smart politics. Obama is still personally pretty popular, and his speech didn't turn on the Republican-bashing that it might have. If the Republicans break out the heavy weaponry, they'll just alienate the audience.
Doesn't this contradict everything she just said?
Response Better Than Expected, But Not Actually Good
Fiance tweets: GOP roboresponse surprisingly lifelike. Indeed, much better than the usual show. If only I could actually remember something the good Governor had said for longer than two minutes. The actual content sounded like the sort of talk that local politicians give to girl scout troops.
Would that be the tea bagging fiance that she mentions every five minutes? I thought "my husband, the doctor..." went out of fashion in the seventies. But she can sound cynical and contrarian again, so for her it's a win.
Roundup: No Game Changers
Like Josh, I think we saw two serviceable speeches tonight. Obama was his usual, excellent caliber. Bob McDonnell did not utterly humiliate himself, which is a big win for a SOTU response. There were a couple of minor "That's interesting" moments with financial reform and gays in the military, but mostly it was both sides saying, "I wish you'd help me enact my agenda, America." Which is not exactly surprising. In the end, maybe Obama gets a transitory bump on the strength of his delivery, but I don't see it really moving the needle on any issues. Nor do I think that the Republicans are going to rally behind McDonnell's stirring rhetorical presence and storm the nation's capitol. So everyone sleep easy . . . the world will still be much the same when you wake up tomorrow.
Do nothing. Nothing matters. Go back to sleep. Eat. Reproduce. Consume.
And we're done, thank all the imaginary gods and goddesses.