Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Post-SOTU thoughts on the SOTU: An uninspiring but nonetheless effective speech


A day later, I remain unimpressed by yesterday's State of the Union address. But I think it was one of those speeches, one of those political events, that appears better in hindsight, once it all sinks in, than it does in the moment.

Here are some thoughts:

-- The speech indeed lacked vision, or any sort of coherent governing philosophy, but I suppose that wasn't the purpose. Last year it was all about America's "Sputnik moment." The president was visionary, providing aspirational leadership of the kind one expects from the presidency at its most lofty. It may not have been his best speech as president, as some suggested, but it was still strong. Certainly both that one and this one offered Obama's future-oriented economic nationalism -- i.e., America can be great (again) by embracing such nationalism (while remaining internationalist otherwise) -- and sense of American exceptionalism, but this year's lacked the Kennedy-esque vision of last year's. Perhaps both are unrealistic and delusional insofar as the "glory" days of the Cold War are not about to be repeated, not least because there is no way Washington, as divided as it is (like the rest of the country), will support the sort of government activism necessary to get America truly back on top again (if that's even possible), but, again, at least last year's, for all its faults, seemed to point towards excellence.

-- If the purpose last year was to lay out a noble vision for America and the means of realizing that vision that was dramatically at odds with the regressionism of the Republican Party, the purpose this year was to set the table for the general election campaign to come. As Jon Chait wrote, Obama was "backfilling the political narrative" in anticipation of a race against a certain Republican alternative: "Vast portions of the speech were devoted to setting out a favorable contrast with Mitt Romney." He didn't have to mention his name. When he praised the bailout of the auto industry and the success of General Motors, all he had to say was that some others had been against it. Yes, Romney, who through his father is from Michigan, was against it. Look for this to be a major issue on the campaign trail. Obama knows it's a winner. Similarly, when he talked about the super-rich having to pay their fair share of taxes, referencing Warren Buffett, well, we all know he was pointing a finger at Romney. In this regard, I suppose his speech was a success. If nothing else, it set out where he's going to go heading to November. Of course he'll have to change things up a bit if it's Newt, but that's such a desirable (if unlikely) outcome of the Republican race that there's no point worrying about it now.

-- As I have been pointing out, noting an emerging and possibly cementing narrative, the big problem for Romney is not that he's super-rich, nor even that he's a shameless panderer to whatever constituency he needs at the time, but that he's a privileged rich douchebag. All along, it has been expected that he would shift back to the center for the general election and have trouble holding onto whatever conservative support he built up during the primaries. But I actually don't think that's what's going to happen -- if he wins. Rather, he'll have trouble winning independents. And not just because he's had to pander to the right but because most independents are turned off by his privileged rich douchebaggery. Look at it this way: A lot of independents are what used to be called "Reagan Democrats." In ethnic/economic terms, they're the white working class. Obama had trouble with this constituency in his battle with Hillary in '08 and hasn't been doing well with them throughout his presidency, in large part because of Republican propaganda but also because, despite his generally centrist policies, he hasn't governed in terms specifically favorable to them: that is, nationalistic economic populism.

With Romney, though, there's an opening, as Romney has been doing poorly thus far with the white working class. Being an out-of-touch plutocrat who makes millions off investment income and sends his money off to Switzerland and the Cayman Islands doesn't help. Being a stiff, condescending douchebag doesn't either. And so yesterday's speech was all about the president laying out an agenda -- and a campaign platform -- designed to appeal to these voters. It was pro-military, pro-tax fairness, pro-trade fairness, and pro-Wall Street reform. It included specifics, such as support for community colleges, that white working class voters like to hear. And it presented Obama as a tough, determined president prepared to create jobs and home and kill America's enemies abroad.

If the speech was truly successful at all, it was in this regard -- in laying out a stark contrast between himself and the unnamed Romney. And judging by the positive reaction to the speech, and to the very worried responses from conservatives, it would appear that Romney will have an awfully hard time keeping up.

As "tepid" and "detached" as it may have been, as John Dickerson wrote, as boring and uninspiring as it may have been (according to me), it was nonetheless effective.

-- Given the theatrical nature of these yearly addresses, tone (or image) matters more than substance (as it so often does in politics). And, to his credit, the president appeared fully in command -- because he is. He was confident, forceful, and on point. Even more than last year, he seems to get it (see Chait, below). It's not about governing anymore, it's about winning and losing. And he's up against a party that over the past three years has taken it upon itself to try to destroy him. He did his best to rise above the partisan fray and to try to negotiate in good faith with the other side, often willing to give up a great deal to get a deal done (e.g., on health-care reform, on the budget and debt ceiling), often to the great frustration of progressives, many of whom turned against him for being Republican-lite (e.g., on civil liberties, on his militarism, on his extension of the Bush-Cheney national security state) -- and some of whom, like me, grew ever more critical even if we never abandoned him. But it's an election year. And enough is enough.

-- Chait again: "It was the speech of a man who realizes that he has only one thing left to do, and that is to win reelection. The Obama of 2009-10 was a pure pragmatic wonk, and his inattention to politics hurt his standing. Through sheer bloody obstruction, Republicans forced him to the only available alternative, which was to use his office solely as a political platform. His agenda is dead, but his public standing has benefited. Perhaps one day Republicans will wish they had been a little more flexible, and had kept the old, wonky, bargaining Obama rather than the slashing populist who's cutting their throats."

-- However much I may question Obama's populist nationalism, I'm certainly looking forward to seeing the non-pragmatic Obama, the passionate, change-oriented Obama, on the campaign trail. If Republicans want a fight, let's give them one. It's about time.

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