State of the Union

[First published at] Barack Obama gave a decent election speech on Wednesday night. Unfortunately he was meant to be delivering a State of the Union address.

No one expects such an address to be entirely apolitical, or crafted to please his philosophical adversaries. But Barack Obama finds himself in a peculiar political hole in which his own smoothness makes the sides unclimbable. And plainly he does not know it.

A year into his mandate the wave of enthusiasm generated by his campaign oratory has receded, leaving a thick residue of public suspicion that he’s all talk and no action. The last thing he needed was one more airy and self-satisfied display of rhetorical prowess when an endless string of precisely such performances have him plunging in the polls and unable to secure legislative triumphs.

Even his rhetoric seems to have lost the charm it once possessed. His words are too polished to have edges; he speaks plausibly, but never produces a memorable phrase. And he has the three deadly unities of dull speaking: his pitch, pacing and volume never vary. Somehow in the campaign it seemed cool, especially to chronically ironic youth, but it is difficult now to recall why.

Contrast his delivery with that of Martin Luther King Jr. We cannot expect every orator to match Dr. King on a historic occasion, of course. But we can all watch his August 18, 1963 "I Have a Dream" and learn from a master. King’s splendid words are set to appropriate vocal music: He soars to a higher register or thunders from the depths; rushes onward in an unstoppable flood then pauses majestically; alternates quiet conviction with intense fervour. Obama just drones.

Wednesday’s speech was pseudo-professorial. It had the slightly patronising, crisp manner of a college instructor addressing ill-informed though somewhat promising students, but not the content of even a second-rate university lecture.

The president pedantically quoted the Constitutional requirement that he "from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union". But given his PR woes, information was the crucial word. Instead his speech was virtually fact-free, relying at key points upon the sorts of touching anecdotes effective on the stump but insulting to members of Congress with detailed policy responsibilities.

When he finally got to the deficit, more than half way through the speech, he promptly blamed George Bush for it. But he did not say how big it was. When he called for a spending freeze, he did not say how much it would save or why he now embraced an idea he once rejected. When he said it would exempt four key spending categories, he failed to explain what share of federal spending would be left unaffected. When he advocated abolishing the capital gains tax on small business investment, he didn’t say what the threshold for "small" business was.

Within hours MSNBC published an Associated Press "fact check" piece noting inaccuracies in more than a few of the facts he did offer. Mark Alexander of The Patriot Post chimed in that Obama’s only other reference to the Constitution, "We find unity in our incredible diversity, drawing on the promise enshrined in our Constitution, the notion that we’re all created equal" was botched because that’s the Declaration of Independence, a strange blunder from a former University of Chicago professor of constitutional law.

Complaints about lack of substance from politicians might themselves seem ritualistic. But compare the 1975 State of the Union by Gerald Ford, who not even his most ardent supporters considered an orator:

"To bolster business and industry and to create new jobs, I propose a 1-year tax reduction of $16 billion. Three-quarters would go to individuals and one-quarter to promote business investment. This cash rebate to individuals amounts to 12 percent of 1974 tax payments – a total cut of $12 billion, with a maximum of $1,000 per return."

Good idea or not, it’s specific. As was "we must reduce oil imports by 1 million barrels per day by the end of this year and by 2 million barrels per day by the end of 1977." Ford also warned that "If we project the current built-in momentum of Federal spending through the next 15 years, State, Federal, and local government expenditures could easily comprise half of our gross national product. This compares with less than a third in 1975."

This is actual information. Obama offered only hype, blame-shifting, and vague initiatives suitable for a campaign based on hope but deeply inadequate for a president mired in discontent because of the growing conviction that he’s all talk. (In 7,000 words he gave just 13 actual dollar figures; in 4,000 words in 1975 Ford managed 27.)

The speech also spectacularly lacked any sense of occasion. We cannot all be Abraham Lincoln either. But we should know that inappropriate bursts of levity and casual diction undermine any attempt to project gravitas to dispel a gathering image as shallow.

Obama conspicuously failed to engage in blunt talk about the nature or intractability of problems that would remain even if Congress did what he wanted. And the only specific fault he admitted, failing to explain his health care plan to voters, was catastrophically obtuse. Even if one grants that his plan is capable of clear and compelling explanation, he has given by one count 30 health care speeches as president. The notion that one more will do the trick is not now the solution to his political troubles but their cause, when so many Americans doubt he can do anything other than give pretty speeches.

Had he entitled Wednesday’s address "Why I was right all along and you should do what I say" it would have given fair notice of its content and tone. Its laundry list of solutions mirrored his campaign, unintentionally signalling that he had forgotten nothing and learned nothing. With a few minor edits it would have been a blockbuster in October 2008. But in January 2010 it merely reinforces the suspicion that Mr. Obama is a one-trick pony, and that trick is electoral not governmental.

Every step he took was false. He smirked that "Our administration has had some political setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved" but failed to say which or when or why, let alone take personal blame or indicate lessons learned. Instead he blamed Congress, lobbyists and partisan politicians, everyone but him. He even managed to provoke a Supreme Court Justice to shake his head and mouth "Not true" on camera, proving that you can deplore polarization while engaging in it, by vulgar berating of the Court as it sat solemnly in its robes before him.

The lack of sense of occasion was overwhelming. Not merely that it was the State of the Union, but the political context in which he found himself giving it. At the end he declared fiercely "I don’t quit" as though delivering the State of the Administration or State of Obama rather than State of the Union address.

For a different president, with different problems, it might have been the right rhetorical note of defiance. For Barack Obama, it was one more proof of shallow narcissism. And the last thing he needed.

ColumnsJohn Robson