Wednesday, January 26, 2011 at 6:31 AM
I have listened to enough State of the Union Addresses to know that they invariably amount to a triumph of style over substance. And nothing demonstrates this quite like the most memorable thing about President Obama’s first address last year being not something he said, but a congressman yelling, “You lie.”
Nevertheless, Obama can take credit for delivering an address tonight that had a few truly memorable flourishes. Most notable was his disarming appeal to Republicans to marshal their self-righteous patriotism in a national effort to defeat the Chinese and Indians, educationally and economically, instead of becoming consumed by self-defeating partisanship in a misguided effort to destroy his presidency.
He called this appeal America’s “Sputnik moment,” echoing JFK’s appeal for a national effort to defeat the Soviets in the 1960s race to the Moon. Brilliant!
That said, Obama’s address still had to compete for media attention with all of the juvenile hoopla about Republicans and Democrats sitting together in a symbolic show of bipartisanship. All this did was set up the spectacle of people tuning in more to see where politicians were sitting than to hear what Obama was saying.
At any rate, as one who was actually paying attention to what he was saying, I was somewhat put off by Obama beginning his address with yet another tribute to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the congresswoman who was nearly assassinated recently. Because, with all due respect to her and all those affected by this tragedy, the national memorial Obama headlined in their honor a couple of weeks ago was surely tribute enough. In a similar vein, I wish Giffords well, but I’m beginning to resent the media reporting on every step of her recovery as breaking news.
Why the president is trying to make 9/11-like heroes out of these folks is beyond me. Not to mention the way the media are turning Daniel Hernandez, Giffords’s admittedly brave intern who reportedly helped save her life, into the Susan Boyle of politics….
Mind you, apropos of the triumph of style over substance, if Obama had called for reasonable gun control tonight it would stand less than a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming a reality. After all, the NRA has most politicians convinced that it is more important to grant citizens the right to own guns that can shoot a plane out of the sky than it is to grant them the right to affordable healthcare.
In fact, the State of the Union Address is rather like a Shakespearean soliloquy that speaks of presidential ideals and aspirations that everyone knows will be summarily frustrated by the overweening demands of special-interest politics. And I cite President George W. Bush sounding the clarion call for America to break its addiction to foreign oil only to see that addiction grow each year of his presidency as Exhibit A in this respect….
Yet this, I fear, will be the fate of Obama’s litany of (mostly recycled) initiatives, including such things as investments in innovation and education to put the sputtering U.S. economy into overdrive, as well as in clean energy technology to, you guessed it, break America’s addiction to foreign oil. Especially since he must now deal with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives whose members seem afflicted with the Tea-Party delusion that the only role for the federal government is to fund America’s imperial military industrial complex.
Hell, these folks are now convinced that government investment in infrastructure (to create jobs and fuel Obama’s economic agenda) is just liberal code for deficit spending, which itself is a Trojan horse to further a socialist agenda for a government takeover of every facet of life in America. Got that?! Truth be told, though, they just can’t abide Obama getting credit for rebuilding all of the crumbling ports, bridges, roads, and railroads to keep pace with the 21st Century infrastructure countries like China and India are building today.
This is why when I heard him say, “We need to out innovate, out educate and out build the rest of the world,” my immediate thought was, in your dreams (or soliloquies).
Obama even proposed a five-year freeze on non-defense spending to cater to purported Republican determination to reduce the deficit at all cost. Never mind that using this freeze to reduce the deficit is rather like using a spoon to bailout the sinking Titanic. To be fair, though, nobody recognizes this more than Obama who also proposed additional measures to reduce government spending, inefficiencies, and abject waste.
Incidentally, when you hear Republicans railing against government spending, beware that what they are really calling for is a confederacy where each state is free not only to make its own laws (on everything from abortion rights to gay rights), but also to decide who can live within its borders (think Arizona…).
So, while Obama is proposing a progressive agenda to create a more perfect Union, the Republicans are proposing a regressive one to return America, ironically enough, to something resembling the warring states of Europe before they embarked on a course to emulate America by creating a European Union. But I digress….
The only other noteworthy thing about tonight’s spectacle was the way Obama was greeted in the chamber like a conquering hero. This, of course, was unimaginable after his party took a shellacking at the polls in November. But oooh what a December to remember: For, when even his fellow Democrats were writing his political obituary, he engineered such legislative feats in this month alone that most presidents would be proud to claim over an entire presidency.
These include ratification of START (reducing the number of nuclear weapons held by the U.S. and Russia), repeal of DADT (allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military), passage of a major tax compromise (extending unemployment benefits and granting tax relief for middleclass as well as rich folks), passage of a bill providing health benefits to Ground Zero responders (allowing them to get the medical treatment and workers’ compensation that, incomprehensibly, they had been denied for over eight years), and passage of another food safety bill as the icing on the cake.
Not to forget that he also pulled the country from the brink of another Great Depression, saved the auto industry, and passed healthcare reform - just to name a few more of his remarkable accomplishments.
Everybody loves a winner….
* This commentary was originally published last night, Tuesday, at 10:38.