The first State of the Union address from President Barack Obama has just concluded and instead of watching the Republican response, I am prepared to respond myself. Though I am personally given to theatrics, rhetoric and emotion, I’m having a difficult time deciding whether to try to write about the speech first from a practical perspective or address the more intangible message it supported. I know there were several quotes which have stuck with me and I’d like to go through a few to get started. My favorite – democracy, especially this American democracy of 300 million people, is “noisy, messy and complicated.” I’ve often loved that fact and while it took me a while to appreciate it, the truth is that everything worthwhile in life requires work and toil. Why should attentive governing be any different? In typical Obama fashion there were references to “history’s call,” “invest in our people,” and calling on our leaders to “seize this moment.” All stirring my inner idealist. There were a few quotes which spoke directly to me, this project and a complaint I’ve often had about politicians.
First, Obama was frank when describing the growing anxiety and doubt many Americans are displaying about the government and in smaller ways his administration. He called it a “deficit of trust” and asked use to utilize “common sense,” even making a joke about how rare that is in Washington. I’ve wanted a politician to come face-to-face with common sense and practicality for a long time. It seems Obama is up to the task. More importantly, this speaks directly to moderates and independents. Generally speaking, those voters who do not align with a major party are often left looking at partisan politics with confusion saying, “this doesn’t even make sense anymore.” In truth, voters from both major parties probably feel that way too. Rare is the politician brave enough to address it directly. I was pleased, but I hope Congress is paying attention (more on this in a moment).
Second, I’ve often complained about politicians being unwilling to address failure, speak openly about obstacles and describe their own frustrations. Here again, Obama is up to the task. Without allowing the emotional high to take over too much, this is the type of speech that I’ve been imagining since I began following politics. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked classmates, professors or anyone who will listen – why don’t they just tell the truth and trust us to listen? I feel like tonight we have a President willing to do that. Was there some political posturing and strategic maneuvering? Certainly, any professional politician is always armed with the tools of his trade. But more than anything tonight, Obama came across as making an appeal to Congress to move forward and the American people to pay attention.
Third, I’ve often argued that the government should be run exactly like a family or small business. If you don’t have the money, you don’t go to the movies or buy a new truck. It was nice to see President Obama invoke the “belt-tightening” analogy and ask Congress to step up to the plate. I thought the President was oddly defensive about the deficit and the $1 trillion attributed to his administration. On the other hand, he was able to describe the financial context of the last ten years and implicated some people in the room in their irresponsibility. I don’t know if freezing discretionary spending will work, but it’s worth a try.
I don’t want to write too much before addressing two observations I made, one I’m not sure if we’ll ever see again and the other a tactical choice which I doubted at first but later understood. We will never again see a President promote cutting taxes and describe the plan to protect and support tax cuts only to have Republicans stay seated and silent while the Democrats stand and cheer. I thought to myself – is this how personal politics have gotten? The Republicans didn’t even realize that he’s trumpeting tax cuts (a bedrock GOP value) and the Democrats are supporting less spending and lower taxes. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like it, but I was surprised. The other observation had to do with the placement of health care in the order of the speech. Any true fan of the West Wing loves the State of the Union episode where Toby and Sam haggle over language and placement while trying to impress and inspire. It was approximately 9:45 PM Eastern Time before Obama addressed the impending health care legislation. I did not think that was appropriate (at first) and thought perhaps he was burying the topic a bit. Whether or not that was the case, he addressed the subject briefly, strongly and with a stated goal for the future. I’m still not sure I agree with his proposal or underlying theory about government run health care system and so, from the perspective of themes and rhetoric, we heard much of the same. However, I do agree that something needs to be done and it’s spiraling out of control. Thus, I was impressed to hear him invite his critics and opponents do any better. I doubt they will, but regardless, it was exactly the type of decisiveness that he now needs to utilize to take charge of the legislative battle ensuing.
At the risk of writing all night, I’d like to highlight four more impressive or interesting areas of the speech. First and probably least importantly, I thought it not only took political courage but was the right thing to do invoking an Executive Order to establish a bi-partisan commission on this country’s future financial status. It’s exactly the type of strength we love in a leader.
Second, I thought it particularly interesting that President Obama chose to address the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. With the justices sitting right up front, Obama wasted no time (but did seem a little more hesitant) in openly disagreeing with their decision and imploring Congress to legislate a solution. Though you never see the Justices move, clap or show any emotion, it did look like Justice Alito whispered either to himself or Justice Sotomayor during that portion. It could just be my conspiratorial mind. Very briefly, I don’t necessarily think it was as big a deal as the President and many in the media seemed to think. I agree that corporations do not have the same rights as people. On the other hand, I’m not sure I see all the public policy concerns with allowing corporations to make commercials and spend money in political races. They already do this through the use of Political Action Committees – little more than fronts for this spending anyway. Also, I react negatively to the implication that Americans are too stupid to understand the difference between a campaign commercial and the truth. The President referenced it tonight and I was a little insulted. He said, “I want these elections to be decided by the American people and not large corporations.” We vote and corporations do not. I understand that unlimited spending will muddy the waters, take the focus off key issues and probably annoy the general public to no end. However, my response is that politicians should be held accountable (by voters!) for the companies they partner with and take money from. Mr. President, trust us to make informed decisions regardless of corporations’ commercials on television, even though the cynic in me will say that the practical impact of the Court’s decision will be that the people will follow whatever headline or scare tactic leads the day and corporations will end up buying elections. The idealist inside will not let me disregard the power of the people and our votes just yet.
Third, President Obama made a timely and much needed comment about bad politics, the politics which say that sixty votes are needed for every bill and the opposing party (in this case the GOP) is willing to block every piece of legislation for two years. I couldn’t agree more. This behavior is ridiculous, petty and a great example of everything that’s wrong with politics. I know there’s a growing swell of people interested in revisiting whether the filibuster is a necessary rule in the Senate, and I look forward to reading and writing more on that. I’d love to see the process open up and legislating become more about coalition building issue-to-issue.
Lastly, and appropriately final, was the President’s implied question to Congress – are you listening? President Obama said all the right things about getting the country back on track, working together, bi-partisanship and Congress’s responsibility to the American people and the future. I’m just not sure if they’ll ever change. It may take a new generation who is slowly creeping into key roles. It may take a major event or catastrophe. Or the President may be able to push for a deep, cultural change in Washington politics. It remains to be seen, but I hope that Congress answers the President’s call and seizes this moment.