President Obama’s State of the Union Address, January 25, 2011

Our president delivered another fine address, and touched brilliantly on a few points, somewhat disingenuously on a few others. My reactions:

  • What initially struck me as gimmicky — Democrats and Republicans agreeing to sit together, rather than their usual separate camps, ended up working well as political theater, in my opinion. A Republican friend earlier this week opined that this ploy was cynically designed to blunt the optics of opposing party members declining to applaud overmuch, which, since most of the people attending were members of the opposing party, would have rendered “audience reaction” less than robust. I think it worked out a bit differently. There was a bit of Democratic and Republican solo cheering — but generally, the cheering occurred at genuinely bipartisan notes. Americans witnessed their elected officials being generally gracious toward one another — and that is a net positive concerning the American people’s perception of government.
  • The president appeared more conservative than expected — certainly more conservative than his administration has been conducted for the last two years. It’s very effective triangulation politics — the president rising above partisan divisions and repeatedly calling upon “Republicans and Democrats” to do the right thing — and typically with kind words to say about the agendas of both parties. That is the generous face of governance for the next year, and it may well get the president reelected in 2012.
  • “The debates have been contentious; we have fought fiercely for our beliefs. And that’s a good thing. That’s what a robust democracy demands. That’s what helps set us apart as a nation.” No, that’s not what sets us apart as a nation — and it trivializes the very greatness you, Mr. President, successfully celebrate later in your speech. The debates in every other Western nation, and most non-Western nations, are equally robust. Nothing about our robust debate in the 21st century “sets us apart” except the skepticism about government power. The only instance in which we might claim uniqueness in the global argument is sustained discomfort with government trying to solve too much.
  • On display, with Reagan’s ghost hovering conspicuously, was the theme of American exceptionalism. It was fascinating political theater. There seems to be no man prouder of our country, no man more convinced of its greatness, no man more confident that none of us would trade places with the citizens of any other country, than the president of the United States. “What we can do – what America does better than anyone – is spark the creativity and imagination of our people. We are the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook. In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It’s how we make a living.” And this: “Remember — for all the hits we’ve taken these last few years, for all the naysayers predicting our decline, America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. We are home to the world’s best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any other place on Earth.”
  • Wow. And it’s the same man from whom we experienced that historic kick in the gut during his worldwide “apology tour” — the same man who began his administration as a juggernaut against the notion of “American exceptionalism.” It is interesting to query whether the citizens of all those other countries feel ever so slightly betrayed. Or perhaps they are simply muttering, he is saying what he must say to those Americans.
  • The president wants to tackle immigration reform. Good, it assuredly should be tackled, with emphasis on securing the borders and punishing employers who exploit illegal labor. But the president’s rhetorical bait was a bit disingenuous. Conspicuously, without actually naming the act, he lauded the Development, Education, and Relief for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which purports to legalize innocent children of illegal immigrants who are accomplished students or engaged in public service. If the subset were that small, the DREAM Act would and should pass Congress overwhelmingly. But it is not. The bill purports to begin with a small subset of very sympathetic illegal aliens — “kids,” the PR purpose  — and expands outward enormously to embrace literally millions of illegal immigrants, none of whom is a “kid,” potentially eligible for citizenship — and it halts any otherwise legitimate deportation simply based upon applying for DREAM eligibility. If Democrats would surrender the overreach of the bill and focus honestly upon the subset applauded by the president, then this side-note of immigration policy could and should become law. Meanwhile, there are massive illegal immigration issues to tackle. And given the president’s frankly disingenuous focus on this issue in his speech, I doubt we’ll see genuine bipartisanship coming from the White House. His administration’s mishandling of Arizona may be the textbook instance of how not to be post-racial and constructive on immigration policy.
  • On health care, the president tip-toed, with a shrewd nod toward President Clinton’s “mend it, don’t end it” approach to affirmative action. Here’s what I don’t get: “What I’m not willing to do is go back to the days when insurance companies could deny someone coverage because of a pre-existing condition.” Really? Popular line — but how do we pay for it without premiums skyrocketing? More importantly, how do you keep people from gaming the system and applying for insurance only when they have a pre-existing condition? Well, the universal mandate. Everyone must purchase health insurance. On this issue of current constitutional significance, the president could have been a bit less glib.
  • But here’s something I never thought I’d hear from a Democrat: “medical malpractice reform.” Wow. If the president is serious about controlling health care costs, then tort reform is indeed essential — but it means willingness to take on one of the richest components of his base, the trial lawyers, right behind the unions. I guess I’ll believe it when I see it. But his willingness to put himself out there and say it at least puts the issue in play — even if his true intention is to ensure that any meaningful tort reform gets defeated or stalled in the Senate. Let’s see.
  • Another wow. “I will veto it,” this time referring to any bill with earmarks — the president’s slam against “special interests” inserting their pet projects into legislation. God bless President Obama. Sounds a bit like Bush senior’s “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge. Let’s see.
  • Yes, Mr. President, “American Muslims are a part of our American family.” Did you really need to say that as though the rest of us didn’t quite get it yet? Just so you know, we do.
  • “And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.” Really? Like how we supported the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people? Do we support the democratic aspirations “of all people” only when they win by themselves? What’s the policy?
  • On the issue of the “Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell” policy imposed upon the military by Congress during the Clinton administration, the president appropriately applauded its repeal, and then equally appropriately called “on all of our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and the ROTC. It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past. It is time to move forward as one nation.” That is sound on both scores and the president deserved the applause.

Our president spoke generally well. He was inclusive and at times quite generous. I applaud the speech, with only the reservations he would expect.

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9 Responses to President Obama’s State of the Union Address, January 25, 2011

  1. Terrance H. says:

    Kendrick,

    You are incredibly – quite unbelievably – longwinded! Though I do enjoy reading your words.

    Thanks!

    • Thanks Terrance! I think. On WordPress alone — the host of our two blogs — there were over half a million new posts, with over 100 million new words — and that’s just today. I frankly feel a bit like a speck in this incomprehensibly vast universe of verbiage. So thanks most kindly for the nod to the incredible size of my wind.

  2. William says:

    President Obama obviously said a lot of things WE want to hear. Was he sincere? I’m skeptical.

    Also, I still don’t like the cross-pollination seating. I believe it was a direct response to the Tuscon shooter and the resulting hot rhetoric. And I don’t want to give one more victory to that little punk.

  3. Very nicely written. I definitely can see your moderate Conservative stance throughout the post. I disagree with the America’s Exceptionalism vs. “apology tour” point. He highlighted our creativity and innovation last night. On that “tour”, he highlighted what our country’s foreign policy has done to screw up things. IMHO, the fact that people don’t believe that he should have commented on our shortcomings actually proves he’s right about our arrogance.

    And the American Muslims being part of our American family? I would definitely argue that there are *many* who don’t get it, as evidenced by the protests and vandalizing of mosques being built in TN and Temecula CA.

    I was definitely skeptical about him pledging to veto earmarked legislation.

    • Thanks Spinny. Very much appreciated as always. On American Muslims, I certainly don’t object to any exhortation to civility and respect, about Muslims or any other group. But SOTU addresses are about selection. Was it really necessary for the president to be that righteously insistent on an obvious point because of some instances of vandalizing mosques? According to the DOJ’s latest Hate Crimes report, with Eric Holder editing, Jews have suffered more than eight times the number of hate crimes than Muslims in America. So should the president have reminded the American people that Jews are part of the American family? Even if the number of hate crimes were roughly equivalent, one would think a presidential exhortation — if any were needed — should have issued for both. But this isn’t even close. Over eight times the number. The subtext, therefore, is that Muslims constitute a sort of privileged minority in the president’s thinking — and, whether actually true or not — that’s not good optics. Americans get tired of being castigated for something that is fundamentally untrue about them. Yes, there are instances of hate crimes against Muslims, and they should be strongly condemned — but Islamophobes? Nonsense. There’s vastly more “Islamophobia” between Sunnis and Shiites in any Muslim country than Islamophobia in America.

      • Hmm. I don’t think the fact that Jewish people have been subjected to more hate crimes matters when talking about anti-Muslim acts. We are in wars in 2 Muslim countries and terrorist threats are coming at us from Muslim extremists. Since all this is happening now, maybe that’s why he gave us the “reminder” that they are one of us, being “Americans” too.

        • Good point about the two wars in Muslim countries and the terrorist threats from Muslim extremists. I suppose that does recommend greater solicitude with respect to American Muslims. When I watched his speech, and the way he said it, I remember bristling. There was a kind of preachy faux-firmness in the way he said it that made me think, is he really talking to America now? Does the president of the United States really need to go on record wagging his finger at the tiny fraction of Americans who might disagree with his statement, and who wouldn’t be watching his speech anyway?

          That said, “hate crimes” do not encompass every discomfort, disrespect and indignity to which a minority might be subjected. So perhaps it is useful to elevate our national dialogue with reminders about our American family.

          But I still believe it was an inartful statement. American Muslims are part of the American family. That’s a tautology. Maybe that’s one of the reasons my left brain (juicy irony there) bristled. What an opportunity cost! If the president wanted to be preachy on this point, then why not salute some concrete inspiring contributions to our nation from American Muslims? Or why not say, “As we fight alongside Muslims against murderous extremists in two Muslim countries, let us never forget that millions of Muslims are Americans too, and that their patriotism enriches the diverse greatness of our nation.” Or something like that. You see my point?

          • “And as extremists try to inspire acts of violence within our borders, we are responding with the strength of our communities, with respect for the rule of law and with the conviction that American Muslims are a part of our American family.”

            I think that whole passage was just poorly constructed. What you wrote would have made much more sense. It wouldn’t have that repetition. Interesting about the left brain bristling. For me, I would think it would be the right brain because hearing it felt “odd?”

  4. Pingback: On Glenn Beck, George Soros, and Moderate Dialogue (and Nazis of course) « The Prince and The Little Prince

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