Wednesday, January 25, 2012


I just now finished watching Barack Obama's State of the Union speech. A bit on the late side. Certainly a different experience for me than most recent such events, since I taped it and then watched without the benefit, or distraction, of following along on twitter. So outside of the NYT headline, I haven't seen any reactions at all.

Now, as usual, this is more theater review than anything else; as regular readers know, I don't think the rhetorical flourishes or anything else about the style of the speech make much of a difference to anything. Still, he is the president, and there's nothing wrong with talking about how he did, as long as no one makes any claims about what effect it's going to have. I should say to that the substance can matter -- initiatives he mentioned tonight have a greater chance of action this year than those he ignored, and even if they don't get through Congress this year it still almost certainly boosts their long-term prospects. But I don't have much to say about that sort of substance, other than I thought he was more hawkish than he needed to be on Iran -- and that I'm glad he at least nodded in the direction of nomination reform, which I'll have more to say about in the future.

As far as style...well, it was better than last year, when I thought the writing was seriously off. This year, they mostly dropped rhetorical flourishes, fortunately, outside of a relatively lame (but presumably politically canny)  frame about how America should work together just like the troops did when they killed bin Laden. In case, that is, anyone forgot who was president when that happened. Because it was Obama, you know. In case you forgot. So there was that at the beginning and the end, and in between? It was fine. It was okay. It was, as Bill McNeill would have said, full of adequasivity. Not a single memorable phrase, other than a truly unfortunate joke about spilling milk. On the other hand, not a single memorable phrase. The thing was very much structured as a campaign document, which is no surprise, with plenty of campaign themes telegraphed and plenty of inoculation against attacks the White House expects are coming. Most of that, again with the exception of the hawkish Iran stuff, seemed harmless to me. At this point, it probably makes sense to talk up the economic recovery; if people feel that he's out of touch by doing so, he's probably toast anyway, so might as well make with the happy talk and try to build on improvements in economic confidence, even if they are so far at very low levels.

As for the delivery. Three years in, Obama still hasn't found a way to make the setting work for him -- which isn't unusual; the only one I remember who did was Bill Clinton, although Ronald Reagan wasn't bad. Clinton, at least in my memory, treated the people in the room as people, not as props, and that seemed to work. Obama seems to go back and forth between speaking to the room and speaking over their heads to us. To me, I don't feel that he winds up connecting with either (and, again, just to be clear, I'm talking about how he delivers Joint Session speeches and not claiming that it Means Anything or will affect anything).

Oh, I watched Mitch Daniels, too. Again, I haven't read any reviews, but all I could think of is that whoever gave him this thankless task surely wasn't trying to boost his presidential chances, whether (implausibly) for this year or for the future. It's an impossible task, and one which he did about as well as anyone else: in other words, it was terrible.


  1. For me, there were two huge warning signs: first, tax hikes on the rich, and second, Obama's increasingly annoying, continued insistence on starting economy-related sentences with "I inherited..."

    On the tax point, I'm sure Team Obama doesn't mean that as a class warfare issue; I'm sure they have spreadsheets showing that by suspending long-term capital gains rates for guys like Romney, the govt can recapture a material part of the deficit without causing themselves undue electoral pain. However, the political cowardice of that approach (as opposed to the more meaningful returning everyone to Clinton-era marginal rates) is so blatant it practically screams off the teleprompter. So when observers protest that, you know, Obama actually did use the words "shared sacrifice" in some selected set of twelve speeches, Obama might also have mentioned little green Martians in those speeches, and they'd be no less real.

    As for the "I inherited..." meme, its sort of the equivalent of going up for a job review, and your boss says, well, your accomplishments were pretty poor this year, and your reply is "Did I mention my job was really hard?" In a way, the continued reminder that Obama's underwhelming economic results are due to the fact that the job was really hard is the quintessential 21st century American excuse...I suspect that won't hunt in the heartland.

    That said, Romney was on NBC last night, and man did he look horrible. Even with the makeup. Also, after watching that interview, I'm not so sure Romney's conventional electoral credentials are as good as folks say. He's an incredibly peevish, small man. In fairness, he's on the back end of a disastrously humiliating week, but on NBC last night it seemed like assumptions about Romney gravitas are driven more by a contrast with folks like Bachmann than anything intrinsic about Romney.

  2. Yep. Delivery was very weak.

    The "lets work together' stuff -- good lord. "Win the Future/Built to Last" -- he has lost all credibility on that. You could see how much Chu loved to hear about increased oil and gas leases.

    Just like W and his other neocon friends, but inverted. They, for the life of them, couldn't find and kill the bad man who hurt us but beat up everybody else instead. Obama seems unable to name the bad thing that put us into recession: wall street and the banks.

    Preet Bhara for President!

  3. I just heard on Fox News that if you take the text of the speech and put it into Google translator, translate it to Kenyan and then translate it back to English, it makes no f@#king sense.

  4. I thought the speech was pretty damn good for its purpose (campaign kickoff). He didn't explicitly talk economic recovery, but the tone was optimistic, and paints Republicans into the awkward corner of trying to say how bad things are.

    On Iran, he gave his tough line ('nothing off the table') and moved on. I think he was trying to tamp it down as a GOP campaign issue.

    @CSH - re 'I inherited,' I think the polling shows that people actually tend to buy that argument, so Obama is just reinforcing what's already out there. On taxes, it wasn't just 'class warfare' in general - he zeroed in directly on Mitt, who does not carry wealth with grace or style.

    Mitch Daniels did about as well as he could with the bad hand dealt him. He came off as rather an old style sensible shoes Republican. I don't know how well that played with the Fox/Rush base, but to centrists he might have just underlined how lame the GOP field is.

  5. First, I want to congratulate myself for successfully getting into the Comments section without freezing my computer for the first time in weeks. (Has anyone else had that problem?)

    Second, I think Obama needs to explain his disagreements with the Republicans on economic policy more explicitly. By not talking about deficits at all, he leaves himself open to attacks that he's ignoring a vital issue. He needs to say that deficits are important and must be addressed eventually, but unemployment is more important and more urgent. Reducing unemployment, by getting people off unemployment insurance and onto the tax rolls, will move a long way toward reducing the deficit; addressing the deficit through budget cuts will undermine the recovery (just as the Europeans are now driving themselves back into recession with their austerity programs), will make unemployment worse, and therefore may not even reduce the deficit.

    1. On your first point, yes, I've also had that problem, but not recently.

      On your second, Obama will get explicit on the campaign trail and in the debates. The SOTU speech is not the place to do that.

      I found his delivery a bit stiff, but then again, he can be a bit stiff. I liked his ideas about shared sacrifice, although from a practical point of view he really didn't mean everyone will sacrifice now, only the wealthy will. He talked about tax reform, but ran roughshod over it as he proposed changes to the tax code to make it more complicated, not less. I also liked -- and it appears I'm the only one -- his appeal to the Beltway crowd to unify like the military does. While no one would expect that level of cohesion among partisans trying to govern, it nonetheless reiterates what he's been saying all along, and what will have to happen if anything is going to get done, around working together. By saying early that he'd work with "anyone in this room," he quickly dispensed with the idea that he or anyone thinks the Republicans would work with him. The battle lines are drawn; the artillery is being wheeled in; the strategy is being telegraphed. Depending on who gets the GOP nod, Team Obama will wage a political shock and awe campaign designed to rip every attack, parry, counter-attack, and tactic employed by his opposition. He is a master campaigner, a skilled politician, and, really, the only sane person running for president. He'll win hands down.

    2. I agree that it's a major mistake not to talk about the deficit. Unfortunately, by some unspoken agreement, few politicians besides Ron Paul are talking about it. And while no one talks, it grows.

      I have strong doubts that extra deficit spending can efficiently put people back to work. That's one issue with the stimulus that the GOP hammered Obama with--that there weren't many jobs created for the size and amount of debt taken out. The GOP is handed same issue with any other jobs plan except a highly focused, efficient one.


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