Yes, but did he hit it out of the park?
A little thing, but Barack Obama wasn't wearing his presidential cuff links Wednesday night. It's been a year, and I've seen Obama wear them once. Bill Clinton campaigned like Everyman, but post-election he became William Jefferson Clinton and didn't shed those honking presidential cuff links until his re-election campaign in 1996. A small thing, as I say, but I like a man who saves the French-cuff shirts for wedding anniversary nights out, New Year's Eve galas and official state dinners. Also, for the first time since Reagan began the practice of weaving notables in the visitor's gallery into his SOTU, the president last night did not in his first SOTU deploy that gimmick, save for kind words for the First Lady - one of a surprisingly large number of bipartisan applause lines.
We don't have in our parliamentary system an equivalent to the Yanks' State of the Union. A pity. I suppose one could balk at the pageantry, if one find such rituals overblown. I don't, not in this case. On no other occasion are the three branches of government the Founders devised present in one room. The cabinet is there, save one designated absentee to run the Republic in the event Capitol Hill is hit by a meteorite. The Supreme Court is there - and what a thrill, otherwise the Gang of Five on the high court would not have personally endured Obama's public scolding of their utter lack of jurisprudence in a Court decision last week that further pollutes American governance with corporate lucre. This was also a test for the media, which it predictably failed, ridiculing Ruth Bader Ginsberg for nodding off without mentioning that she's fighting a terminal illness. The head of each branch of the military service is there. All 535 federal legislators are there, including the leadership of the two major parties. (Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is the sole member of the Socialist caucus on the Hill.) Even D.C.'s Embassy Row clears out for this one; the cameras lingered for awhile on the Haitian ambassador to the U.S.
If you marvel at the American experiment - and if you don't, the Roman Republic and the Magna Carta likely don't engage your thoughts, either - this ritual commands your attention just for the spectacle of the world's oldest democracy in one room. Including by extension tens of millions of voters looking in. It's Oscar night, with much higher stakes. Last night, for instance, the president committed himself to ending the odious "Don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military, the kind of thing you'd like to tell your grandchildren you witnessed. I have to rely on grainy newsreels for LBJ's insertion of that poignant statement, "We shall overcome," in his 1965 SOTU, raising the curtain on his landmark civil-rights legislation that year.
There were the usual great expectations for Barack Obama's speech, as there have been for his inaugural address, his first 100 days, his speech on healthcare in his second talk to a joint session of Congress (this was his third, Obama knows the routine by now), and of course for his first year in office.
Remarkably, Obama has not in his first year as president restored full employment to the Republic. He is on the brink of being the eighth president to fail to bring about universal health care. He has not brought peace to the Middle East. He has assembled a firing squad to dipatch the greedheads of Wall Street. ("Ya'll never take a deposit in this town again," blamo!). The lead headline of the New York Times' online edition this morning was "President Changes Course After Year of Failed Promises." I guess the editors of that paper, which has been gliding into irrelevance over the past decade, didn't read this or something akin to it.
We've heard lately that Obama needs to get his groove back, to "reset" his presidency. But Obama did not lose his groove. America lost its.
With good reason, 14 months ago Americans finally repudiated the disastrous presidential policies and practices of a "lost decade." (Eight years, of course; it just seemed like a generation.) And with unusually heightened enthusiasm in a presidential contest they chose by a decisive margin the candidate whose relative youth, obvious energy, intelligence and calm demeanour, and even his skin color was a break from a prolonged haitus from wisdom and common sense in Washington.
But alas, the electorate soon lost its sense of urgency about the great tasks they chose this new man to tackle. When Obama proposed emergency financial assistance to Main Street; an overhaul of the world's biggest dysfunctional health care system; leadership rather than defiant ignorance on the global warming; energy self-sufficiency; education reform in a nation whose students are bested in literacy and numeracy by kids in Korea and Hungary; a world without nuclear weapons - any of which would try the sturdiest soul - the new president's political adversaries on the Hill opposed, in unshakable unity, every one of his major initiatives.
And members of Obama's own party broke ranks. They reverted to factions that can be crudely described as conservative (the self-style blue dogs), moderate and progessive, with further divisions to be found among the extremists in the conservative and progressive camps, making five factions in all.
We recall what Lincoln said about a house divided. And Will Rogers' jibe that "I don't belong to an organized party. I'm a Democrat." And when the freelancing began, and it seemed every freshman member of Congress had an obstructionist notion with which to gum up the works, the Americans who had so craved real leadership in Washington headed for the hills - what Obama last night admonished fellow Democrats not to do. So enthralled are Americans with the romantic notion of the single-combat warrior that it strikes them George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and FDR acted alone. Lincoln, who said without public opinion back of him he was impotent. Americans did not fight for the "change we can believe in" that Obama promised. And never mind that every time he said those words on the campaign trail he added that change wouldn't be easy and he would need a lot of help.
And so the president, for practical purposes, has been largely on his own in pulling the economy back from the abyss. In giving this Congress more, and more important, things to do than all but a half-dozen of its 110 predecessors. In fulfilling more campaign promises in his first year than any predecessor. In lifting America's regard abroad. (The U.S. is now the most admired nation, up from 7th before Obama took office). In nominating a superb jurist to the Supreme Court. Out of the blue Obama was cursed in his first year with a Nobel Peace Prize, cause for widespread mockery. The message of the Norwegians that Obama's humanitarian beliefs are be widely encouraged was completely lost on the American people and their talk-show tribunes. For at least some Americans with Parkinson's disease and other incurable ailments, Obama's reversal of his predecessor's restrictions on stem-cell research should be sufficient cause to be mighty thankful for the electoral outcome on Nov. 4, 2008.
But the man does not walk on water, as so many, at least in the chattering classes, assumed either that Obama could do or thought he could.
To answer my own question, yes, I think Obama hit it out of the park Wednesday night. He said what the moment required. And did so with his usual eloquence and common-sense analogies that have come to be taken for granted or dismissed as sophistry, and won't be appreciated until he's gone.
But it doesn't matter. Obama has been giving pitch-perfect speeches in service to his causes since long before he was elected. Yet while it's true that with words we govern, a president's words alone aren't nearly enough. Because he's a Democrat, one is tempted to think, Obama lacks the surrogates of a Reagan or Dubya to amplify his message and constantly counter opponents with it. Americans are fixated on their president, never mind that the Constitution devotes half as many words ascribing powers to the presidency as to Congress, which they intended as the cockpit of American federal governance. Americans fixate on their president - on his wardrobe, his public-approval ratings, his rare loss of temper on learning that a close African-American friend had just been arrested for the crime of entering his own house. Perhaps, just perhaps, Barack Obama is a black supremist...
In a better-informed republic the fixation would extend to the opportunists Olympia Snowe and Joe Lieberman, the extortionist Ben Nelson, the ineffectual Harry Reid, the casually mendacious GOP leadership on the Hill. I was taught as a kid that the Congressional maxim is, "The president proposes, the Congress disposes." Maybe they don't teach elementary civics in America anymore. If they did, you would know that Congress merits as much scrutiny, probably more, than the administration.
Obama blamed himself last night - a self-deprecation one would like to see among bank CEOs - for not sufficiently explaining the proposed healthcare reforms to Americans. I say "the" rather than "his" because the reforms arise from lengthy debate among 535 lawmakers on the Hill. Obama put healthcare reform on the agenda. He is not a lawmaker - a distinction first blurred when Dubya quixotically described himself as head of the executive and legislative branches.
Obama's assertion is complete nonsense, of course. In his second address to a joint session of Congress, devoted soley to healthcare reform, Obama made clear, in uplifting rhetoric and gritty detail, what the reforms were all about. He explained "death panels," which happen hundreds of times a day in America and are known to doctors as "end of life discussions" among patient, family and caregivers. The only unwelcome intruder in those deliberations is a private insurer on whose generosity the decision to maintain costly treatment overly depends.
With two wars on his hands, an obsolete national-security apparatus to reinvent for the post-Cold War era, globetrotting to pressure world heads of state to open their markets to U.S. exports and plenty else to keep him busy, Obama talked health-care reform to Americans all last year in town-hall meetings, formal speeches in hotel ballrooms and high-school gyms, and in one-on-one interviews with the punditry and TV anchors. This despite the handicap of having to "sell" a long overdue proposed overhaul of one-fifth of the U.S. economy not knowing exactly what he was pitching because the details were under intense debate by no fewer than five Congressional committees for the better part of the year.
Obama's healthcare-reform principles, mind you, could not have been clearer. Namely, healthcare as a right of American citizenship, no longer a privilege of those who can afford it. No more abusive treatment of Americans by private insurers. And a reduction in the spiralling healthcare costs that threaten to bankrupt the Republic by mid-century. Unusual for a Democrat, with the Democrats' weakness for wonkery, Obama reduced to its essentials a healthcare system more complex than the mysteries of DNA so that even Mitch McConnell could understand it. If Americans still "don't get what's in it for them," as Obama said last night, they haven't been listening. Doing their homework to sift fearmongering from truth in a realm that affects their everyday lives.
Yes, a reset is in order. That's what Obama delivered Wednesday. In the all-important opening passages of his talk, Obama tried to reset the American mood by citing the much tougher trials the nation has previously faced and overcome. He gave them a context, America's sprawling history in which to contemplate today's relatively minor discomforts. Fifteen million Americans out of work is a crisis. But 10% unemployment is not without precedent: it's the level of joblessness in Reagan's America at this point in the Gipper's presidency. It's no Fort Sumter or Pearl Harbor.
Obama in those same opening words made what some of us consider the obvious point that he "gets it." In fact, he knows a great deal more about the suffering of economically distressed Americans than perhaps anyone, because he learns anew about it every day, in reports from the Bureau of Labour Statistics, the remedies suggested by his economic team, and the 10 letters from everyday Americans he reads each night before bed.
Having given the occasional speech, I have to admire Obama's blend of historic perspective and present-day urgency captured in the all-important opening passages:
Our Constitution declares that from time to time, the President shall give to Congress information about the state of our union. For two hundred and twenty years, our leaders have fulfilled this duty. They have done so during periods of prosperity and tranquility. And they have done so in the midst of war and depression; at moments of great strife and great struggle.
It's tempting to look back on these moments and assume that our progress was inevitable - that America was always destined to succeed. But when the Union was turned back at Bull Run and the Allies first landed at Omaha Beach, victory was very much in doubt. When the market crashed on Black Tuesday and civil rights marchers were beaten on Bloody Sunday, the future was anything but certain. These were times that tested the courage of our convictions, and the strength of our union. And despite all our divisions and disagreements; our hesitations and our fears, America prevailed because we chose to move forward as one nation, and one people.
Again, we are tested. And again, we must answer history's call.
One year ago, I took office amid two wars, an economy rocked by severe recession, a financial system on the verge of collapse, and a government deeply in debt. Experts from across the political spectrum warned that if we did not act, we might face a second depression. So we acted - immediately and aggressively. And one year later, the worst of the storm has passed.
But the devastation remains. One in ten Americans still cannot find work. Many businesses have shuttered. Home values have declined. Small towns and rural communities have been hit especially hard. For those who had already known poverty, life has become that much harder.
This recession has also compounded the burdens that America's families have been dealing with for decades - the burden of working harder and longer for less; of being unable to save enough to retire or help kids with college.
So I know the anxieties that are out there right now. They're not new. These struggles are the reason I ran for President. These struggles are what I've witnessed for years in places like Elkhart, Indiana and Galesburg, Illinois. I hear about them in the letters I read each night. The toughest to read are those written by children - asking why they have to move from their home, or when their mom or dad will be able to go back to work.
For these Americans and so many others, change has not come fast enough. Some are frustrated; some are angry. They don't understand why it seems like bad behavior on Wall Street is rewarded but hard work on Main Street isn't; or why Washington has been unable or unwilling to solve any of our problems. They are tired of the partisanship and the shouting and the pettiness. They know we can't afford it. Not now.
So we face big and difficult challenges. And what the American people hope - what they deserve - is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences; to overcome the numbing weight of our politics. For while the people who sent us here have different backgrounds, different stories and different beliefs, the anxieties they face are the same. The aspirations they hold are shared. A job that pays the bills. A chance to get ahead. Most of all, the ability to give their children a better life.
You know what else they share? They share a stubborn resilience in the face of adversity. After one of the most difficult years in our history, they remain busy building cars and teaching kids; starting businesses and going back to school. They're coaching little league and helping their neighbors. As one woman wrote me, "We are strained but hopeful, struggling but encouraged."
It is because of this spirit - this great decency and great strength - that I have never been more hopeful about America's future than I am tonight. Despite our hardships, our union is strong. We do not give up. We do not quit. We do not allow fear or division to break our spirit. In this new decade, it's time the American people get a government that matches their decency; that embodies their strength.
E.J. Dionne Jr., WaPo: Obama shows he's a conciliator, and also willing to fight.
John Dickerson, Slate: Obama 2.0. The president uses the state of the union speech to relaunch his brand.
Ezra Klein, WaPo: A good speech that needs a good follow-through.
Dana Milbank, WaPo: A polite state of the union.
Andrew Sullivan, Atlantic: A republic, if you can keep it.
Michelle Goldberg, Daily Beast: Obama does it again.
Christopher Buckley, Daily Beast: One hell of a speech.
Jonathan Chait, New Republic: Obama's dull, cheap, successful speech.
Jonathan Cohn, New Republic: Great speech. Don't stop now.
Paul Krugman, NYT: Pretending to be stupid.
James Surowiecki, New Yorker: The state of the union.
Alex Pareene, Gawker: Barack Obama's state of the union was awesome.
Steve Benen, Washington Monthly: Why it worked.
Jeff Mason, Reuters: Did he get his groove back?