If you feared that this State of the Union address would be a sharp right turn from hope and change, relax.
It was the best speech our first bi-racial president searching for middle ground could make.
President Obama was purposefully in the key of C all night. No sharps. No flats. No real excitement. And no real answers either.
It was a mild nudge to the American people to greatness.
But did invoking the Sputnik make you want to dream big? Or did it make you appreciate Tang?
It’s hard to motivate a country in love with mediocrity to go for excellence. And though the president tried, how far did he expect to take us with his lukewarm rhetoric?
When the president said we’d win the future by repeating the phrase “We do big things,” he tried to soar.
So why did the phrase just make me think of Sesame Street and Big Bird?
For most of the speech, the president had just enough rhetoric to keep everyone interested from both sides of the aisle. (And wasn’t it nice that everyone sat together like grownups for a change. Yes, that was Republican bulldog Eric Cantor next to Democrat Bobby Scott, the only Filipino member of Congress).
For progressives dismayed by Obama’s pro-corporate report card of the last two years, you had to cheer when the president said he’d go after the lobbyists who have “rigged” the tax code so that some companies pay no taxes.
And in the president’s “Green section,” where he went on and on about renewable energy, you had to be revving up your Prius when he proposed to cut “subsidizing yesterday’s energy and investing in tomorrow’s.”
“I’m asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies,” the president said.
Hooray. But does that include clean up costs?
On the domestic side, the president’s “education” section was encouraging. I doubt if most Americans were even aware of “Race to the Top,” a new program to raise standards after the dismal “No Child Left Behind.”
I especially liked how he encouraged geekdom. “We need to teach kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.”
But who did he remind you of when he said, “We need to teach kids that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline.”
Did Amy Chua (good at PR) make him Tiger POTUS?
Obama’s a busy parent. He knows who matters in education. “If you want to make a difference in the life of a child,” he said, “become a teacher. Your country needs you.”
But will that make people run to school districts that are laying off hundreds of teachers?
This is the problem with the state of the union address that tries to be all things. A detailed list invites wonky debate. With just enough detail, Obama was merely trying for the “feel-good,” an appropriate thing for a SOTUS.
So it must suffice for now to hear again that the war is over in Iraq and that the troops from Afghanistan would soon be home.
We will have to make do with the reassurances that all the things the president let happen in the lame duck would somehow be worked out.
The Dream Act didn’t pass, but there was Obama last night talking about helping the children of the undocumented. And the need for comprehensive immigration reform. Even Speaker Boehner was applauding that point from behind the president’s podium.
And those Bush tax cuts Obama agreed to extend back in December? Now, they have to go. “We simply can’t afford a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans,” the president said.
Obama even appeared to stand his ground for the poor and the middle class. “I’m willing to eliminate whatever we can honestly afford to do without,” said Obama. “But let’s make sure that we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.”
In the end, there may have been enough to keep an alienated base hoping.
And just enough lack of detail on the deficit to split the Republicans into latte and tea drinkers.
We’ll see. A speech is just words. It’s the actions that count.
But if there’s one thing that held it together for me, it’s the idea that we are all in our current mess together.
That made my favorite moment what is always my favorite moment in these speeches. It’s the diversity moment, a time for what I call “the litany of America.”
It’s not exactly Kumbaya. But it’s that time in the speech that calls for a rhetorical effect that recalls a list of all of us.
In this SOTUS it came when the president spoke of our troops.
“They come from every corner of this country–they’re black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American. They are Christian and Hindu, Jewish and Muslim. And yes, we know that some of them are gay.”
Despite the earlier reference in the speech to being “part of an American family,” the litany drives it home.
It’s the only time we are all mentioned, a recognition that the speech applies to us all, and that we are, indeed, a part of the grand plan, of an America inclusive. At least on that point, there’s no middle ground.