President Barack Obama knows how to deliver a speech about as well as anyone since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And, like Roosevelt, President Obama set out a vision for the coming year that focused on the economy, and specifically on the way the government can lay the groundwork for economic growth. Almost every issue he mentioned pivoted back to that central point.
The problem is that the Republican Party has a different vision of how the government can help the economy recover. And, they have this obnoxious habit, grown worse since last week’s special election, of acting as if Obama had not won the election in 2008. The President called on Congress to move beyond partisan bickering, but I wish he had been more willing to call out the GOP. When he goes to Capitol Hill to meet with GOP leaders, and they put out a press release saying nothing was accomplished before the meeting, you know they were not sincerely engaging him in the first place. If they put their political goal of impeding any administration efforts ahead of the need for the government to help turn the economy around, shame on them.
There is a place for honest disagreement between the parties and Republicans are entirely entitled to propose their own solutions to the economic crisis. Indeed, President Obama has apparently decided to meet them halfway before any negotiations are begun, announcing a series of tax cuts that will appease Republicans but will do nothing to actually improve the economy. A small business does not hire when a tax cut comes on line; a small business hires when its staff can no longer handle growing customer demand.
Many on the left have denounced the President’s proposal for a spending freeze on discretionary spending. He understands something they do not, and the section of the speech in which he explained the spending freeze was the most effective of the evening. He said, "families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same….Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don't. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will." I do not know if the phrase "enforce this discipline" was intended to be so paternal, but it had the happy, and undeniably true, effect of pointing out the childishness of Congress.
The President, like his predeccesor George W. Bush, tried to cast himself as an outsider, despite living in the most insider home in the nation. He spoke about Washington’s political culture as if he was not living in the middle of it. Sometimes this fell flat. On CNN, the Independents in a focus group flat-lined Obama when he made an inside joke about health care not being good politics. Self-deprecating humor is one thing, but of course a joke about health care was going to fall flat.
I had hoped the President would use the fact and form of the State of the Union speech itself to contrast his approach to governance with Washington’s dysfunctional traditions. I was hoping the President would give a brief, maybe 15 minute speech and avoid the hour-plus laundry list approach that he followed. Among other things, it is impossible to keep the focus on one central thing when you are reading a laundry list. For example, ending "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" in the military is a fine idea, an instance of simple justice that is long overdue. But, it has nothing to do with job creation and the economy and, just so, should have been left out. Instead, the reference sounded like typical interest-group politics.
The State of the Union also showed, vividly, the one thing President Obama does not have to worry about: his base. The Democrats in the focus group on CNN kept him at the top of their meters from the moment he walked in the door. The noisy, inside-the-Beltway lobby groups, and the still noisier blogosphere of the left, may give him trouble but rank and file Democrats still love the guy.
President Obama is uniquely gifted as an orator and the relaxed demeanor he exhibits in such situations shows a self-confidence that is as breath-taking as it is needed to tackle such an enormous set of of challenges. He has not only a surplus of confidence, but a surplus of intelligence, and he must remember that the rest of us don’t. He can speak about the stimulus money helping, but the rest of us need to see it. We need to see the high-speed rail lines being built, the wind farm being constructed, the bridges being replaced. In the days and weeks ahead, the President should find himself outside Washington, visiting businesses and schools and police stations where government is making a difference. The state of the Union is better because of the actions this president has taken. He just has to make sure the rest of us see that fact more clearly and last night was a good first step.