Thursday, January 28, 2010

SOTU Post-Mortem: Obama's Big Gamble

By Robert George

Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson declares that Barack Obama has "lost his grip on reality."

On the contrary, this State of the Union was actually a rather reality-based speech. It's just that Obama decided to toss aside all the usual conventions for such speeches and decided to focus on a reality different than the one most journalists and commentators expected him to focus on.

Indeed, one could argue that this was even less of a "state of the union" than Obama's "Economic Address To the Nation" that took the place of the SOTU in his first year. Instead, this seemed more akin to a convention keynote address that makes stark divisions between party visions than an annual address that attempts to unite the country.

Note how the usual formulation of "the state of our union is [blank]" was truncated to "our union is strong." For a gifted speaker like Obama who tends to hew to traditional rhetorical convention, this departure was strange -- unless it was particularly designed to send a different message than usual.

indeed, the strangeness continued -- the evidence of which could be gleaned by what was included and excluded in the speech.

To go in reverse order, for the first time I believe since Reagan initiated the practice, there was no shout-out to the special guests in the president's box. The hero cops from the Ft. Hood shooting were reportedly up in the gallery, yet no explicit mention of them? Odd.

Odder still was the specific avoidance of specificity. By that, I mean the president made pointed reference to examples of companies and individuals helped by the stimulus -- but gave no names.

He mentioned a young boy who sent money to the
White House to help Haitian relief -- yet didn't identity him by name. It would be easy to sat that he omitted these specifics to deter fact-checkers, but in the Internet Age, that sort of scrutiny isn't going to be easily evaded. So, why leave out the names?

Meanwhile, what WAS in the speech? Sure, the usual listing of policy proposals, but a lengthy defense of decisions made and policies adopted last year made up the bulk of the first half of the address: The impact of the "Recovery Act", AKA "the stimulus," was the focus.

As such, this was one of the most overtly political SOTU speeches in some time. But perhaps this is actually where the country is -- that actually is the reality that Barack Obama sees.

And so, he has decided to double down on the political -- rather than economic or security -- reality of the moment.

Consider, one conservative last night declared that he was surprised that Obama displayed none of the contrition of
Bill Clinton's 1995 "the era of big government is over" SOTU. Another analyst made a similar point.

Huh!!! Really?

Losing Ted Kennedy's Senate seat is the political equivalent of losing both chambers of Congress -- including the Democratic House for the first time in 40 years! Conservatives really want to make that comparison? Obama appears to be making the bet that a president gets two years before the inevitable midterm correction delivered by the voters. To toss aside all plans now would be the mark of someone with absolutely NO backbone.

Which is why something Obama included in the speech was so off-putting (from a traditional SOTU perspective):
To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills. And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that sixty votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, 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. So let’s show the American people that we can do it together.
I didn't have time to pour through all SOTUs given, but I can't remember when a POTUS explicitly reminded his side of the size of its majority and the other side the price that comes with asserting that 60 votes are necessary for passage of major bills.

He was, at that moment warning that Democrats risked being labeled cowards and Republicans obstructionists if his agenda wasn't pushed through. Was that serious ass-covering ("If this all falls apart, it's your fault, not mine!")? Maybe, but it's not a completely unfair reading of the current political reality.

Ronald Reagan got his tax cuts through a Democratic House and GOP Senate. George W. Bush -- after losing the popular vote in 2000 -- got tax cuts and No Child Left Behind through a split Senate. Even after the Jeffords flip gave Democrats the majority, the hated-by-Dems Ted Olson was approved as Bush's solicitor general.

The point here is that with much smaller margins, Republican presidents get things done -- usually because Republicans support the individual in the White House.

Unfair or not, Barack Obama is daring Democrats to walk away from him on health care -- now that each chamber has passed a bill. A party legislative dream of decades is tantalizingly close. November may prove that Massachusetts was the warning sign that Republicans and many independents believe it to be. But Obama has put down the gauntlet to declare that he deserves to have half his first term play out before the post-mortems of his presidency are carved in stone -- regardless of how unpopular health care is at this moment.

In short, Obama is faced with the perpetual tug in politics -- does an elected leader stick to the inner compass or does he follow what the polls (and one special election) tell him?

Obama seems willing to bet his congressional majority on the former. That's why this was a give-no-inch political speech.

That's not to say that there weren't areas in which he still managed to leave himself vulnerable. While he -- in his own fashion -- went after the economic fears bedeviling the country, he ignored the advice of one blogging pundit who suggested hours before the speech that he make an aggressive rhetorical move to speak to terrorism concerns. Obama's mild reference to the Christmas bomber may be an underselling that could well come back to haunt him.

But in the larger picture, we'll see, come November, if the overall bet Barack Obama made Wednesday night was a smart or stunningly stupid one. In the interim, it's going to be bumpy ride, because Obama declared the state of our politics to be fractious and harsh -- and
he's willing to declare it a war zone. 
George is an editorial writer at the New York Post and a former Capitol Hill speechwriter

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