As hoped, President Obama’s decision to highlight typically “conservative” reforms — including the elimination of dead regulations, reorganization towards more efficient government, freezes in government expenditures, deep cuts to the Pentagon budget, and tweaking of the healthcare law — stole substantial momentum from both Republican responses, which, in their impassioned advocacy for the same, managed to come off as uninformed, or confused. If the President can pass those reforms, he’ll head off the tea party handily, as the extremist’s worst enemy is moderation. And despite off-key mockery — which manages to, remarkably and deliberately, miss the point — Obama’s frank assessment of the problem, as the kind of generational challenge that we’ve overcome in the past, should appeal to true “deficit hawk” moderates.
Two criticisms: first, although the consistency of the boilerplate line, “the state of our union is strong,” has its appeal, the President missed a chance to innovate. The line came as a disconnected coda to the speech, as it’s so often been a disconnected opener for other Presidents, when it could have led into a productive and necessary discussion of the need for civility. “Our union“: a phrase we hear regularly, but one that symbolizes so much that’s gone unsaid.
Second, I don’t love the line, “win the future.” It’s a hackneyed construction, and a simplistic placeholder for an exhortation that, when spoken by the sitting President from the House podium, should be emotional, inspirational, and unique. Worse, it implies the need to defeat someone or something in an unnamed, existential battle. Almost any phrase would be better. “Lead” the future? And the President seemed to lean on the repetition of the line as a substitute for an overarching structure to the speech. Sure, it’s hard to sustain a structure through an hour-long speech. But a White House speechwriter’s job isn’t supposed to be easy. On these bases, I’d give the President strong marks for stating a tailored, strategic, coherent political agenda; but low marks on oratory.
Oh, and I can’t help but note: Michele Bachmann’s zombie response speech (YouTube)? Look around 1:25. She puts up a chart showing unemployment spiking in 2009 — meaning, Obama either inherited a crisis, or caused it on his first day in office — and trending downwards thereafter. I admire her honesty in not manipulating her data, at least on that point. But… does she expect the rest of us not to see it?