Where Was the Narrative?

When it comes to State of the Union addresses, the opinions of the chattering classes are usually wrong. For one thing, for all the predictions of its potential to change the political landscape, the speech tends to have only the tiniest effect on the president's approval ratings. For another, though the wags always complain that the speech was terribly long, the public never seems to mind (the one president who regularly got a bump from his SOTUs was Bill Clinton, who could drone on with the best of them).

There's no law requiring that State of the Union addresses be dull, overlong lists of provisions and proposals, but it has certainly come to seem that way. It's more habit that makes the State of the Union what it is. Every executive branch department has input and pushes to see its programs mentioned and praised. The speechwriters labor to include as wide a panoply of issues as possible, both foreign and domestic. The addresses tend to include a raft of proposals to demonstrate that the president will be forging ahead with a bold agenda of problem-solving and future-shaping.

That doesn't mean that a State of the Union can't have an emotional core and a fully developed thematic structure. It's just that it almost never does.

Obama's address had weaknesses, to be sure (more about them in a moment). But it also did almost all of what he and his advisers wanted it to. He offered a spirited defense of the stimulus package passed last year. He also reminded viewers of how deep the economic problems were when he took office -- something that's easy to characterize as backward-looking but is nonetheless important to establishing a complete economic narrative that moves from the past (crisis) through the present (challenges being addressed) and into the future (triumph). Republicans might remember that Reagan did exactly the same thing in his 1982 State of the Union ("Our current problems are not the product of the recovery program that's only just now getting under way, as some would have you believe; they are the inheritance of decades of tax and tax, and spend and spend"). Perhaps most important, Obama projected understanding, confidence, and resolve.

Nevertheless, while Obama got the mood right, the speech lacked a single narrative thread. A great State of the Union would be organized around a theme that explains who the president is, who his opponents are, and how the arguments between them ought to be understood. There was one section in the speech that inched toward this kind of encompassing idea, when Obama took on the notion that he is doing too much or doing it too fast:

From the day I took office, I have been told that addressing our larger challenges is too ambitious -- that such efforts would be too contentious, that our political system is too gridlocked, and that we should just put things on hold for awhile.

For those who make these claims, I have one simple question: How long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold?

You see, Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse. Meanwhile, China's not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany's not waiting. India's not waiting. These nations aren't standing still. These nations aren't playing for second place. They're putting more emphasis on math and science. They're rebuilding their infrastructure. They are making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs.

Well I do not accept second place for the United States of America. As hard as it may be, as uncomfortable and contentious as the debates may become, it's time to get serious about fixing the problems that are hampering our growth.

This section defines his opponents as timid, passive, and even lacking in faith in America's ability to triumph, while he is courageously forging ahead for the country's sake. But it came late.

If there was a reason to be disappointed in the speech, it was the same reason progressives have again and again been disappointed with Obama, even when they were most excited about him. He has a terrible aversion to drawing clear ideological lines of distinction and to calling out his opponents by name for their misdeeds. When he talks about all the benefits of the stimulus but doesn't mention that every single Republican in the House and all but three (one of whom became a Democrat) in the Senate voted against it, or when he characterizes gridlock as the fault of "Washington" and not the fault of Republicans, progressives aren't frustrated just because they want some red meat to gnaw on. Those ideological distinctions have a practical importance. They explain for the public what the parties' differences are and direct blame where it ought to go. They establish markers that can be repeated and reinforced, making your future efforts at persuasion far simpler.

But as always, Obama passed up one opportunity after another to define his opponents as the problem. When he called for ending the taxpayer subsidies of banks that administer student loans and directing the savings to more education grants, he could have added, "I know my Republican friends want the banks to continue to get that taxpayer money" -- because they do. It would have been particularly effective at a time when everyone is angry at banks. But he didn't say it. And it's hard to push back on conservative ideology when you're adopting so many of that ideology's results – tax cuts, freezes on domestic (but not military) spending, hamstringing "paygo" budget rules (which no one outside of Washington knows or cares about), defining energy only as nuclear, offshore drilling, coal, and biofuels. Nor did he blame Republicans for the fact that they have chosen to filibuster every single major piece of legislation, placed hold after hold on the president's nominations, and have bet their political future on obstruction. Instead, he blamed "Washington":

Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can. The confirmation of well-qualified public servants should not be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual senators. Washington may think that saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, is just part of the game. But it is precisely such politics that has stopped either party from helping the American people. Worse yet, it is sowing further division among our citizens and further distrust in our government.

True, "neither party" should obstruct every bill -- but the ones doing it now are Republicans. And the ones who have gotten the most mileage out of slinging false charges are Republicans. If you're a Prospect reader you already know that, but lots of people need to be reminded. And it doesn't help you to put the blame on "Washington" when you're the one running the place.

Obama did throw what Todd Gitlin called a "soft gauntlet" at the GOP when he said, "If the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well." This is a theme to which Democrats should return in days to come. And to his own party he said what they so desperately needed to hear from their president: "I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills."

Finally, as he usually does, Obama finished strong, in a way that did what the best presidential rhetoric does: bind the citizens to the leader in a common fate and purpose. "We have finished a difficult year," he said, and he could have easily been speaking of his own political fortunes. "We have come through a difficult decade. But a new year has come. A new decade stretches before us. We don't quit. I don't quit. Let's seize this moment -- to start anew, to carry the dream forward, and to strengthen our union once more." If his party can manage to seize the moment, and not cower in fear as it has been doing for the last week, then that new year might actually end better than it began.

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