Rhetoric in the State of the Union Address

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?

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14 comments

  1. We are in a battle for the future with China and the rest of the world, though it would have been impolitic to say so outright. To lose the future is a threat to American exceptionalism.

  2. I thought the speech was decent if unsuprising. I was genuinely pleased to hear his plans for a government restructure though I am pessimistic about it being truly transformative. I was glad it was light on the references to specific average citizens sitting in the First Lady’s box (curses to the President that started that tradition). I have also grown weary of talk about infrastructure with nothing ever happening.

    1. I agree about the federal restructuring, though I am probably a bit more hopeful, and I would also add tax code restructuring as something else I felt similarly about.

    2. Mike – Reagan started that tradition, and few Conservatives curse him publicly these days. Bravo to you.

      Kris – the view from inside the federal government is much harsher – we can’t do all the things Congress tells us to do on your behalf now, so how is restructuring (probably couple with attrition based Reductions in Force) really going to change anything? And as I ask so many places – why does the federal workforce have to suffer for the bad decisions made at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue?

      1. Phillip – I figured it was either Reagan or Clinton. Man, I hate that stuff. It’s so contrived it makes me want to barf.

  3. Yeah, we all agree on all of those points I think (STOP THE PRESSES). Except I’d add, Kris, that yeah, that’s true. I just wish he’d hit on a better way to say it.

  4. It was a little hard to stomach his references to competing with China after the public kissy-face that went on last week.

    1. Then you didn’t see the view we saw here. Public kissey face got the Chinese president to admit not once bu twice that its human rights record is . . . in need of work. haven’t sene that before, and it is a huge step.

      1. Human rights are great and I think we should pursue it but…I’d much rather see trade pressure and the Chinese letting their currency rise to a normal level of value.

        1. Considering how much of our debt is held by the Chinese . . . do we really want a trade war with them? Does that make our economy more secure?

          1. I’m not suggesting a trade war – but i think we have plenty of ways we can pressure them. I’m just suggesting we close the gap a bit.

  5. The reference to random people is like the flag pin thing. It’s kinda nice, in a kitschy way that could be more elegantly accomplished some other way, but once started it’s impossible to take back.

  6. Good enough speech overall, but I thought his attempt to draw lines back to the Apollo program fell somewhat flat. Probably because “We’ll have a million electric cars on the streets by 2015” isn’t quite as tangible in a way as “We’ll put a man on the Moon in 10 years.”

    On the other hand, good to see a very strong emphasis on education, research and infrastructure development. Trade pressures or even an appreciated RMB is jt going to amount much against China’s (and India’s and others’) competitiveness – it’ll take an edge in technology and a highly flexible economy.

  7. I hate the “the state of our union is strong” boilerplate because it’s never, ever, true. America is pusillanimous, complacent, decadent, infested. It is not in a good state.

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