Obama's Ride Past the Wreckage

Here is what doesn't matter about the State of the Union and its attendant spectacle: the instant polls of people who watch, the approval polls that follow, and -- when it comes to public opinion -- the actual content of the speech.

The first two are easy to explain; instant results are skewed by audience demographics (generally, the president's supporters are those who tune in) and instant impressions are usually fleeting. What sounds good in the moment -- "A joke about salmon? Hilarious!" -- might sound ridiculous the next day. Likewise, since relatively few people watch the speech, its impact on presidential approval is negligible. Of the last five presidents, only one, Bill Clinton, saw a measurable bump in his approval rating following a State of the Union.

As for the speech itself? If an issue is relevant and the president emphasizes it, then the public will follow, according to a study by political scientist Jeffrey Cohen. But that effect rarely lasts more than a year; within a few months, most people forget all but the most high-profile elements of a State of the Union address. Americans might remember that this speech was about the "future" and "competitiveness," but odds are good that they won't match those themes to any particular policies, like high-speed rail, Race to the Top, and corporate tax reform.

By contrast, the president's speech is very important for the lawmakers, interest groups, and party elites that ultimately craft and pass policy. Barack Obama is signaling his preferences and giving the institutional Democratic Party a better sense of where he wants to go, what he wants to do, and where he is willing to compromise.

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Jamelle Bouie and Adam Serwer dissect the president's speech.

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With that in mind, two things are worth noting. First is the specificity of his proposals for taxation and deficit reduction. On the former, he asked Democrats and Republicans to "simplify the system. Get rid of the loopholes. Level the playing field. And use the savings to lower the corporate tax rate." Deficit-neutral tax reform wasn't a priority of the 111th Congress, but it was floated by the White House at the end of last year and endorsed by the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission. This is a real priority for Obama, and in all likelihood, we'll see action.

Likewise, Obama detailed specific proposals for deficit reduction. He proposed a five-year freeze of annual domestic spending and, in a failed appeal to Republicans (judging from its absence in either Republican response), promised to "bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president." He floated cuts in military spending as well as in his own priorities, like community-action programs. The section on deficit reduction was the longest of his address, rivaled only by the sections on education and infrastructure spending.

However, joblessness was not mentioned once in the 6,000-word speech, and in his praise of recent economic growth, Obama failed to mention an unemployment rate of 9.4 percent (opting, instead, to laud growing corporate profits). Granted, Obama nodded to the absence of well-paying jobs and stable livelihoods but stopped there to segue into a discussion of international competition. But not once did he show concern for the 15.8 percent unemployment rate among African Americans or the 13 percent unemployment rate among Hispanics. There is no mention of the 15-year high poverty rate or the ongoing foreclosures that have thrown millions of Americans out of their homes.

If we can gauge issue importance by specificity and length, then it's abundantly clear that the White House -- along with the Democratic Party -- has all but given up on reducing unemployment. With a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a smaller Senate majority, there are vanishingly few prospects for further stimulus or more generous benefits. By completely omitting the country's employment crisis from his address, Obama is giving Democrats the space to look away from the wreckage, if they haven't already driven past it.

Given the political environment, it's no shock that President Obama used the State of the Union to leap for the center. Still, it's deeply disappointing to realize that -- even with a Democratic president -- the poor and least-fortunate have few advocates in the mainstream of American life.

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