CBS News has the video and full text of both the SOTU and response here.
The American public had a largely positive reaction to this State of the Union. The pundits I hear were less impressed, but that's hardly a shock.
I listened to most of the State of the Union on the radio as I drove home, then turned on the TV (I've since watched it again). I'm rather obsessed with vocal work in acting (diction, inflection, accents, subtext, cadence and musicality), and the SOTU is certainly a performance and political theater, even more so than most other political speeches. When listening to the radio, there's only the voice and no visual cues, which has its both its drawbacks and benefits. Obama's a good writer and speaker, but I found it this one more processed and calculated than usual. One favorite pattern was: 1) lay out the situation in a relatively even tone, with some variation for bullet points, 2) raise the pitch to emphasize some point, usually to implore the audience or to point out that 'this makes no sense,' then 3) issue a challenge in a pounding cadence in a lower register. This isn't an unusual approach to political speechifyin', and Obama does it better than most. Structurally, the ending echoed the opening (not surprising, but reflecting basic craftsmanship).
Obama mentioned the drawdown of troops from Iraq. He also said "we've begun to wind down the war in Afghanistan," including a scheduled drawdown of troops this summer, but last I read, the final withdrawal date is delayed until 2014 for absolutely no good reason. I was disappointed but hardly surprised to hear no talk of ending drone attacks, or closing Guantanamo, or ending indefinite detention, or initiating torture prosecutions (or at least a Truth and Reconciliation Commission), or dismantling the American surveillance state. When it comes to the Beltway establishment and the leadership of the two major political parties, American imperialism is a matter of bipartisan comity (much less so in the roots, where's there's a far sharper divide).
Obama's general decision to run against a do-nothing congress and challenge the Republicans to deliver legislation they'd championed in the past to his desk to sign was both smart and valid. Invoking post-WWII infrastructure spending and the GI Bill was also sharp. Charles Pierce correctly notes that the Occupy movement drove Obama to use stronger populist rhetoric. Obama's best section on this was probably:
We don't begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it. When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it's not because they envy the rich. It's because they understand that when I get a tax break I don't need and the country can't afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference -- like a senior on a fixed income, or a student trying to get through school, or a family trying to make ends meet. That's not right. Americans know that's not right. They know that this generation's success is only possible because past generations felt a responsibility to each other, and to the future of their country, and they know our way of life will only endure if we feel that same sense of shared responsibility. That's how we'll reduce our deficit. That's an America built to last. (Applause.)
Funny, an honest critique actually makes for both good policy and good politics. (Now what will come of it?)
One of my biggest criticisms of Obama is that he consistently adopts Republican/conservative frameworks, which is problematic because they do not reflect reality or good policy. Thus, in the tradition of Clinton triangulation and Broder centrism fetish porn, we received a great deal of talk about tax cuts, deregulation, drilling for natural gas, and so on. I don't blame Obama for the hand he's been dealt, inheriting several horrible situations and facing congressional conservatives who are the most obstructionist in history (unless you count the Civil War and secession, I guess – back when, ironically, Republicans were the party of Lincoln). Republican officials have almost no commitment whatsoever to responsible governance. They have pursued an unconscionable strategy of economic sabotage to seize more power for their party – at which point, they will not just continue but ratchet up their crappy, cruel, plutocratic policies. (Their attitude is that someone else has to be the adult – screw you, they've got theirs.) So I don't blame Obama for the awful hand he's been dealt, but I do criticize him for how he's played it on multiple occasions. Regardless of how one judges his motives and character, his modus operandi is to play conciliator. That could work if the Republican Party wasn't so batshit crazy and at times utterly nihilistic, and if there was a rabid America left to balance them out. Instead, the mostly centrist-to-conservative Obama (on some issues one could call him liberal) is denounced as a socialist, which presumably makes liberals flaming communists. Reality-based policies that honor the social contract have been consistently attacked as a great threat to America, rather than lauded as the source of its (potential) greatness. (Imagine if the American right was where Obama is, and he represented a mostly-sane and somewhat responsible Republican Party.) Obama does give lip service to social contract stuff, but he won't challenge the American ruling class that strongly. For instance, he deserves credit for consistently talking about raising taxes on the rich, but basically, he's always been fighting merely for a return to the extremely-generous-to-the-rich levels under Clinton with his kinder, gentler version of Reaganomics. The Republicans are completely corrupt and plutocratic, and Obama is better in comparison, but he's an establishmentarian who will only push so far. (One could argue that in our current, corrupt system of political donations and patronage, this is inevitable, but then let's acknowledge that.)
Case in point, here's Obama on corporate taxes:
We should start with our tax code. Right now, companies get tax breaks for moving jobs and profits overseas. Meanwhile, companies that choose to stay in America get hit with one of the highest tax rates in the world. It makes no sense, and everyone knows it. So let's change it.
First, if you're a business that wants to outsource jobs, you shouldn't get a tax deduction for doing it. (Applause.) That money should be used to cover moving expenses for companies like Master Lock that decide to bring jobs home. (Applause.)
Second, no American company should be able to avoid paying its fair share of taxes by moving jobs and profits overseas. (Applause.) From now on, every multinational company should have to pay a basic minimum tax. And every penny should go towards lowering taxes for companies that choose to stay here and hire here in America. (Applause.)
Third, if you're an American manufacturer, you should get a bigger tax cut…
Boy, those tax cuts conservatives are always shilling sure sound great, don't they? Some of this depends on semantics, and what's actually done remains the most important, but in actual practice, American corporations do not pay "one of the highest tax rates in the world." Many large corporations pay minimal taxes, and some pay effectively none. Let's force them to pay up first, then we can talk about "lowering" the corporate tax rate. Reversing the order will just mean they pay even less, which is of course their aim. Betting on the bad faith of the rich and powerful as a class (and their lackeys) is the safest wager you will ever make.
On education, Obama made a number of positive statements about college loans and the like. (The Republican position, that students should pay more to private companies and go deeply in debt, is absolutely unconscionable, whether it's held due to corruption, or ideological fervor, or some putrid mix.) Obama also said:
At a time when other countries are doubling down on education, tight budgets have forced states to lay off thousands of teachers. We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000. A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance. Every person in this chamber can point to a teacher who changed the trajectory of their lives. Most teachers work tirelessly, with modest pay, sometimes digging into their own pocket for school supplies -- just to make a difference.
Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let's offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. (Applause.) And in return, grant schools flexibility: to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren't helping kids learn. That's a bargain worth making. (Applause.)
Discussing Race to the Top in detail is a lengthy conversation in itself, as is the general vogue for one education fad after another. But to my ears, Obama shifted almost immediately from speaking out against bashing teachers to – bashing teachers. The main problem, again, is his adoption of a conservative framework, granting legitimacy to bad faith bullshit. The punitive mindset toward teachers, that firing more of them is the chief solution (plus union-busting) is entirely misguided. You will never hear this attitude toward other people who enter a life of service – military personnel, or firefighters, or cops, or nurses. (For that matter, just imagine religious leaders, with their tax-exempt status, being attacked as lazy freeloaders who should be canned.) If the first question you ask about improving education is, "How do we fire more teachers?" you have failed miserably. The important questions are, how do we make the teaching profession more attractive? How do we attract good candidates? How do we pay teachers more? How can we show them more respect? How can we support their efforts with students? How can we alleviate some of the outside challenges they face – students coming to school hungry, or with troubles at home, or troubles in their neighborhood, or with peers at school, or with large gaps in their education, or lack of study skills, or lack of basic language skills, or lack of parental involvement (sometimes merely due to lack of time, not caring)? How do we retain good teachers? How do we best share good ideas and effective teaching techniques? How much do we invest in professional development, and support teachers to safeguard against burnout? How do we restore a once good teacher who has been worn down? Ask all those questions, and make a sustained, good faith effort to address them, and then you can talk to me about firing teachers. But let's cut the scapegoating, class issues and political calculus (firing people who tend to vote Democratic) fueling all this bullshit. If you don't think movement conservatives hate teachers and the middle class in general, you're not paying attention. As we've covered before, some conservatives, such as the billionaire Koch brothers, pay millions every year for flacks to argue for defunding public education, public libraries, public media, and almost everything to do with the Commons. Discussions about public education should not occur in a vacuum.
Obama also said (emphasis mine):
I'm a Democrat. But I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: That government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more. (Applause.) That's why my education reform offers more competition, and more control for schools and states. That's why we're getting rid of regulations that don't work. That's why our health care law relies on a reformed private market, not a government program.
On the other hand, even my Republican friends who complain the most about government spending have supported federally financed roads, and clean energy projects, and federal offices for the folks back home.
The point is, we should all want a smarter, more effective government…
Again, while what Obama actually does remains important, he's essentially accepting a conservative world view here. And again, that's problematic because it doesn't work – except for the rich or relatively privileged. If saying all this gives Obama cover to pass some good legislation, it's less troubling, but that hasn't been the general pattern, and it remains a serious concern. I can forgive punching hippies if it actually achieves political progress and some good deals, but it hasn't. Obama is too intelligent not to know that government-run health care, where essential care is not dependent on for-profit private insurance, is both more effective and far cheaper than any private approach. There's ample evidence of this in the United States alone. What benefit comes from lying about this? The more easy question to answer is, who does lying about this benefit? (Cui bono?) Why not instead frame the issue to the Republicans as, 'you got what you said you wanted,' as Obama has in the past, and did elsewhere in this very speech? Would that somehow convey "weakness" while the other passages did not? This sort of rhetoric, just as with Obama talking about so-called entitlement reform, is not something to cheer. In terms of elected national officials, the Democratic Party has a liberal subgroup but is not particularly liberal, certainly compared to other nations. (As should be clear, I really don't give a damn about the label, I care about good policies.) If political progress depends on moving the Overton window (to more reality-based policies that honor the social contract), Obama often undercuts these efforts.
(Personally, I don't always see practical value to debating Obama's motives and character, since progress depends on sustained political pressure regardless of an official's supposed virtue or lack thereof. Similarly, I don't expect many politicians to choose good policy when it's bad politics, but when politicians oppose measures that are both good policy and good politics, well then, it does raise the whole stupid-evil-crazy debate. We political junkies of the blogosphere often dwell on these things. I'll confess I find this stuff interesting, in much the same way I ponder and discuss King Lear and other good narratives, and I'm fascinated by human nature in general. I'd argue that anthropology and the arts often yield far more political insight than mainstream political commentary. However, on the political activism level, the answer to the stupid-evil-crazy question only matters to the degree that it affects your choices and actions. For instance, does thinking Obama is at heart a good guy make you pull your punches and not pressure your congressman about that bill? To what degree does it shape how you spend your limited time and energy politically? Will you focus on local issues, or on reforming one of the major political parties, or building a viable third party, or on single issue advocacy? All this is fodder for a later post.)
Obama's pitch in this SOTU was in some spots to liberals, but for the most part, I don't think he was trying to woo disillusioned liberals back; he was pitching to the supposed moderates, independents and swing voters (some of whom can be considered disillusioned as well). He was also challenging the Republican establishment, and trying to frame the upcoming fight to the media. It seems to have worked in the short run. We'll see how the Obama campaign adjusts its approach as the election year progresses.
Finally, let's consider Obama's big finish:
Which brings me back to where I began. Those of us who've been sent here to serve can learn a thing or two from the service of our troops. When you put on that uniform, it doesn't matter if you're black or white; Asian, Latino, Native American; conservative, liberal; rich, poor; gay, straight. When you're marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails. When you're in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one nation, leaving no one behind.
One of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden. On it are each of their names. Some may be Democrats. Some may be Republicans. But that doesn't matter. Just like it didn't matter that day in the Situation Room, when I sat next to Bob Gates -- a man who was George Bush's defense secretary -- and Hillary Clinton -- a woman who ran against me for president.
All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves. One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn't deserve credit for the mission. It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job -- the pilot who landed the helicopter that spun out of control; the translator who kept others from entering the compound; the troops who separated the women and children from the fight; the SEALs who charged up the stairs. More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other -- because you can't charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there's somebody behind you, watching your back.
So it is with America. Each time I look at that flag, I'm reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those 50 stars and those 13 stripes. No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other's backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we are joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, and our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America. (Applause.)
This is a variation on Obama's rhetoric from 2008 and 2009, about there not being a red America, or blue America, but a the United States of America. (He used a few versions.) I heard at least one reporter call this closing stirring, and as mentioned before, the American public as a whole had a positive reaction to the speech. Jonah Goldberg launched a characteristically anti-logical attack ("illogical" would be too kind) on this section as... un-American. I'll turn that one over to Blue Texan, and Roy Edroso and the alicurati.
Honestly, I was rather creeped out and dismayed by this section. Yes, many conservatives/Republicans have been enormous hypocrites on bin Laden. Bush said he wanted him dead or alive, then said (after they apparently couldn't find him) that he didn't spend much time thinking about him. Several prominent, otherwise hawkish conservatives refused to congratulate Obama for killing bin Laden, or insisted that Bush deserved half or most of the credit. Given that the same people insisted we start two wars – and insisted, outrageously, that we go to war with Iraq because of 9/11 and bin Laden and that anyone who disagreed was a traitor – that's pretty galling. (Of course, lying to start an unnecessary war sorta permanently disqualifies anybody from being considered "honorable," so no great surprise.) Earlier, Obama mentioned infrastructure spending, and could have ended with the metaphor of building a bridge, or dam, or school, or something of that nature. Instead, he argued that Americans of all walks of life could come together in unity – to kill a terrorist.
One could argue this is a sad but realistic assessment of where America is. Movement conservatives, overwhelmingly white, hate a significant number of their fellow Americans, and even hate the countries of their ancestry in Europe. Consequently, are you really going to convince that group to stop hating brown people in foreign lands, when you can't even make progress on fronts one and two? Are you really going to persuade people who believe things that are simply not factually true of your policies' virtues? Are you going to persuade people screaming (due to idiocy or a paycheck) that the president is a flaming socialist (when this is laughable) that they should reinvest in infrastructure, education, research, and the social contract in general? So perhaps this closing metaphor is the best that America is capable of agreeing to collectively, a desperate appeal to conservatives who hate Obama passionately that surely they can put their differences aside on at least this one issue – killing a foreign Muslim terrorist. Perhaps. (And this will somehow lead to a better tomorrow. Or we simply get the metaphors we deserve.) But regardless of the accuracy of this diagnosis, I have to stick with my first reaction – that it was very dark, and astoundingly cynical. I won't weep for bin Laden, but I will over the sad state of my country.
To anyone familiar with Mitch Daniels' career, his selection for the Republican rebuttal trumpeted bullshit before he even opened his month. Sure enough, Daniels delivered (emphasis mine):
The President did not cause the economic and fiscal crises that continue in America tonight. But he was elected on a promise to fix them, and he cannot claim that the last three years have made things anything but worse: the percentage of Americans with a job is at the lowest in decades. One in five men of prime working age, and nearly half of all persons under 30, did not go to work today.
"In three short years, an unprecedented explosion of spending, with borrowed money, has added trillions to an already unaffordable national debt…
Politifact has sadly undermined their own credibility elsewhere, but they do a decent job on some Daniels claims. Paul Krugman and Steve Benen have more on the Daniels rebuttal, and I'll just link a 2011 post on the Republican Party's utter hypocrisy on fiscal matters, "Extremism in Defense of Nihilism Is a Vice." It debunks many of Daniels' direct and indirect claims, such as the lie about "an unprecedented explosion of spending."
I had a conversation with someone who heralded the bolded section above as honesty (Daniels indirectly admitting the Republicans shared some blame), but at best this is a necessary and begrudging planned concession in order to pivot to far greater bullshit (a move that is a David Brooks staple, by the way). An honest statement by Daniels, would go something like:
True, Obama did not create this mess – I did, along with George Bush, Dick Cheney, almost all the Republicans in Congress, and some conservative Democrats (the Blue Dogs). We did it over the objections of many Democrats, and it was a colossal exercise in bad faith, because we had to sunset these huge, budget-busting tax cuts for the rich and use the reconciliation process to get it all passed – and we've threatened to shut down the government twice now if those tax cuts were not extended. We didn't say jack shit about adding five trillion to the debt, and actually lied and demagogued the hell out of the issue. We've only started squawking now that a Democrat is in office, playing the game exactly as we did with Clinton. We'll do all that again and more if we get back into office, since every single Republican presidential candidate wants to lower taxes even more for the rich, including the complete elimination of the estate tax. We know none of our measures will do jack shit to help the economy, by the way. Still, we'll continue to pretend that merely charging the wealthiest Americans the tip money that the extremely generous Clinton tax levels would entail is nothing less than raging, flaming socialism. Obama won't challenge Wall Street that much, it's true, but we'll actively work to screw you over in new and more efficient ways, as part of our Road to Serfdom, Fellate an Aristocrat initiative. So vote for us.
Chris Matthews, who can be really hit or miss, liked Daniels' speech (Rachel Maddow did not). I think some people look at Daniels, see a boring milquetoast who makes some feints toward bipartisanship and accountability, and think that this somehow makes him a sober, responsible adult. (After all, when has a soft-spoken, bureaucratic white guy ever caused harm to the country? Give them a chance!) Maybe they're just grading Daniels and the rest on a curve, given the sorry state of the Republican Party, but somehow, Daniel's actual record and long history of flagrant dishonesty on his supposedly signature issues, the economy and fiscal responsibility, do in fact matter. Meanwhile, I remain astounded that anyone, even conservatives whose analysis amounts to little more than gushing fanfic, would anoint Mitch Daniels as a conservative heartthrob.
The Chattering Class
After the State of the Union and Daniels' response, Charlie Rose hosted a panel of folks to discuss it all: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Bret Stephens, Mark Halperin, Al Hunt, Kurt Andersen and Andy Stern. I had this playing in the background and only caught snatches. Doris Kearns Goodwin has her detractors, but made good points and provided helpful historical context and comparisons. (She often does, and while I wouldn't have her as the only analyst, she's generally a positive addition to the mix.) Hunt provided decent but unexceptional boilerplate analysis. I probably missed most of Andersen and Stern.
Mark Halperin remains a little shit, an odious legacy troll who represents all that is shallow, obtuse and petty in our national political discourse. (He was #1 in Salon's Hack 30 for 2011, a well-deserved dishonor.) He yet again assailed Obama for not changing the tone in Washington. I'll quote from "Partisanship, Policy and Bullshit" from July 2011 once again:
As of this writing, the Republicans have staked out an extreme, reckless position, refusing to raise the debt ceiling, and thus endangering the economy and America's future. Despite all this, Village idiots such as Mark Halperin have attacked Obama for his tone in criticizing the GOP's radical plan. It would be one thing if the Republicans were just offering an alternative, equally valid plan, but instead, they're threatening the government's very ability to function. Halperin refuses to acknowledge this; his analysis is insultingly obtuse. Not making a value judgment on two such stark choices is itself a value judgment; it legitimizes the extremists. Put another way: The Republicans have every right to make their pitch, but it should be fact-checked and put into context so viewers can better understand. What the two sides are fighting for does actually matter, and some basic substantive analysis, such as, oh, exploring and explaining the probable consequences of defaulting on the debt, would be both fairly easy and helpfully informative for the public.
The childish Halperin pattern of media criticism has prevailed throughout Obama's presidency. Obama has often been criticized for not fulfilling a campaign promise of changing the tone in Washington. Okay, he deserves some blame for that, in that it was a somewhat stupid promise, fine as an aspiration but requiring adjustments to the realities of the political landscape. However, most of the criticism Obama has received ignores that the Republicans play any role in all this. George W. Bush barely won election in 2004, yet this was hailed as a mandate. Meanwhile, the Republican approach was rejected by the American public in 2006 and 2008. In response, the Republican Party did not change their approach, and if anything, became more conservative and extreme. Their policies are neither good nor popular. Most of the corporate media has ignored all of this. Rush Limbaugh announced that he hoped Obama failed, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." As mentioned above, there's ample evidence of bad faith by Republicans on policy (follow the links). Yet somehow, this rarely gets noted by the so-called objective media. While Obama certainly deserves plenty of valid criticism, attacking him for "not changing the tone in Washington," while simultaneously ignoring Republican behavior, is absolutely imbecilic. As it stands, the blind, substance-free "bipartisanship" fervently urged by the DC Village can only be achieved through total capitulation by Obama and the Democratic Party. The Beltway gasbags don't seem to notice or care. (However, this only seems to be the case when it comes to Democrats; whether the Democrats are in power or not, and whether the public backs their policies or not, the Villagers somehow always feel that the Democrats are obligated to capitulate to the Republicans.)
I have many criticisms of Obama, but failing to "change the tone in Washington" is not one of them. As usual, it represents a Beltway obsession with cosmetics and rejection of substance.
I heard a voice petulantly complaining about Obama and his liberal perfidy, thought, "Who the hell is this guy?" and turned to see a slightly chubby youngish white guy in Brooks Brothers uniform and sporting a prep school coif. It turns out it was Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal. I try to avoid analysis by demographic, but sometimes you can just look at these fuckers, especially given their huffy, aristocratic, I've-just-smelled-something-unpleasant grimaces, and predict almost exactly what bullshit they're going to spout. They don't make actual arguments as much as sneer. Apparently, among the country club Republican, National Review, rabidly anti-egalitarian crowd, Stephens belongs to the "Kill all the brown people in the Middle East" subset, having penned an op-ed titled, "Why Hasn't Israel Bombed Iran (Yet)?" (Hey, as long as I'm insulting everybody, why stop now?) That's the great thing about affluent conservative punditry – you can find a wide variety of opinions on what the greatest threat to the aristocracy is, and who precisely among the lesser orders, foreigners and other perceived foes deserves the most contempt.
Anyway, that's my take on the whole affair, in a late, long post, as usual. I hope I've adequately proven my wide-ranging and abiding misanthropy to those who stuck it out the whole way. For other takes (that I haven't linked already), see David Dayen, Mike Lux, Steve Benen, the Professional Left Podcast, and just about any political blog you like, since I'm sure I missed plenty. And like the man said, "May the forces of evil become confused on the way to your house."