All eyes were on President Barack Obama Wednesday night as he delivered the State of the Union address. It has become the custom of pundits and news personalities to make bold claims regarding the importance of this event, and this year was no exception; except perhaps this hype held some kernel of truth. Obama and the democrats have seen a nosedive in their public approval ratings, as well as several electoral setbacks.
The president desperately needed to revitalize the party’s image and his own, and the forum of the State of the Union address gave him the perfect opportunity. His oratory skills have never been better. Obama defended his more controversial policies and explicitly referred to himself as an independent who will not seek popularity over principle. If he had not then launched into a stream of populist rhetoric and mediocre policies, it might have been the speech of a strong and capable president.
Before the speech, there was speculation on the part of the media as to whether or not Obama would strike an apologetic tone, given the growing opposition to many of his policies. The answer proved to be a resounding no. He defended the bank bailout as a necessary evil. Then, the camera cut away to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who looked completely joyful to find out that at least one person in the room supported him. Obama also touted the stimulus bill as an integral part of our economic recovery. He then refused to back down on health care reform; he offered only the appearance of contrition when apologizingfor not explaining it well enough. He said he didn’t care about being popular, and one could almost have believed it.
But as the speech continued, he just couldn’t seem to help himself. Maybe he missed the old days when he commanded respect and admiration from the majority of the country, or perhaps he wasn’t truly resigned to being a great one-term president. Either way, he just could not seem to avoid saying things people wanted to hear. The populist Obama railed against the amorphous forces we all love to hate: big banks, big business, partisan politicians and lobbyists. The usual praise and promises were made to the middle class, small businesses and principles of bipartisanship and common sense.
Any new policies seemed to have been crafted based on their appeal to the mythical middle America. Some were sound, albeit trite. Modest middle-class and small business tax cuts are a perennial favorite. Some were vague and formless. (What exactly is a jobs bill?) Most were meaningless. The proposed spending freeze, for example, would apply to a small portion of the overall population and have a negligible effect on the deficit. Also, the bipartisan commission on fiscal responsibility would have absolutely no teeth if not approved by the U. S. Senate, which already bipartisanly voted it down. Also, what are the chances the Senate actually posts all their earmark requests? At worst, his policies were completely off base. Trying to strong-arm companies to refrain from outsourcing jobs makes very little economic sense.
Most amusing was Obama’s method of dealing with more controversial issues. He seemed to believe that if he espoused a liberal policy he must quickly mention a conservative one. So he urged off-shore drilling and cap-and-trade in the same breath with nuclear power. Then, when he seemed to credit tax cuts for the creation of jobs, he quickly pointed out that many of these jobs were in the clean energy sector. It is a testament to Obama’s skill that he was able to both stress his independence and shamelessly pander to the American people with such grace. I guess he is a real politician after all.
E-mail Ed Innace at email@example.com.