President Obama’s State of the Union Address, January 25, 2011
January 26, 2011 9 Comments
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.