Before examining President Obama’s first State of the Union address (transcript), we must acknowledge this: no matter how well he did, and how good immediate poll numbers appear, the goal for last night was not to change the game, but to lay out the rhetorical tools his party needs, and we must use, to turn the tables on the Republican opposition. Yesterday must be the beginning of a hard-fought campaign to capitalize on the event, and win back momentum on health care, and a host of other issues. Viewed properly, I think we got what we needed. Here’s why.
Populism: throughout the speech, we saw brief mentions of an us/them dichotomy, a tactic geared towards rebranding Obama as, once more, the outsider. The American people “deserve a government that matches their decency,” Washington is “unable or unwilling to solve our problems,” “we all hated the bank bailout” but had to follow through on “the last administration’s program,” etc. Speaking once more in the language of popular need was, to reclaim the momentum it confers, a necessity, and one that was pointedly accomplished. Substantively, the entire front end of Obama’s address stressed tax cuts — not crushingly expensive cuts that benefit only the wealthy, but small-time credits that, combined, benefit the majority. In what could make a pretty good campaign ad, John Boehner (R-OH) sat on his hands, and Obama called him on it:
Framing: campaign finance isn’t about freedom of speech; it’s about corporate control of elections and, more importantly, foreign control of elections.
With all due deference to separation of powers, last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections.
I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities.
Focusing on foreign influence is clever, in that it’s easy to understand, clearly problematic, and avoids opening a needless front in the war against corporate greed. Also, where the transcript says “entities,” I could swear I heard “enemies.” One minor quibble: it’s not clear what, apart from clever changes to corporate law, can be done about Citizens United, and President Obama didn’t really offer an answer. But we now have a way to talk about the decision along valence issue lines.
Similarly, health care isn’t an entitlement program; it’s an “investment in our people” — and his plan is the only game in town:
But if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know.
That’s not strictly true. But the GOP plan is, to date, a paper tiger (elephant?), one penned to check a box, not as a serious proposal. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself this: when have you heard anyone mention the Republican alternative, except for the fact of its existence? Which leads us into the next note.
Reality checks: Obama “set the record straight” (his words), disabusing his more popular detractors of their myths about finance —
At the beginning of the last decade, the year 2000, America had a budget surplus of over $200 billion. By the time I took office, we had a one-year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade. Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program. On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget. All this was before I walked in the door.
And party control —
And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, a supermajority, then the responsibility to govern is now yours, as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions.
As indicated by this post’s title, these rhetorical innovations are the tools we need to persevere. But that’s all they are. The best issue articulation in the world, which this speech probably approximated, does nothing if it’s only used for one day. We need to pressure our legislators for the solutions Obama offered, using the cues he provided. And the President needs to remain visible, to ensure that the contours of the debate remain defined by his office, or his allies. King’s to us.