Let me make it clear from the start that I’ve never been one who thinks that events like the State Of The Union are much more than a splashy show. It’s the closest we come to a formal state occassion and so we make the most of the hype but it rarely lasts much beyond a few days.
Just to test the theory, can any of us remember much from any prior SOTU ?
Has there ever really been a major policy emerging from a past SOTU ?
I’m sure our readers will be able to come up with a few but the fact is most memorable and productive Presidential speeches come at other times. LBJ calling on Congress to pass Civil Rights legislation, Reagan calling for Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin wall, Kennedy calling for us to go to the moon. All of these are speeches we remember but as far as I know none were SOTU’s.
Having said that I can certainly not deny that President Obama is a spellbinding speaker and he was in his best form tonight. He had much of the chamber in the palm of his hand and probably much of the public. My guess would be that the polls will show strong approval of the speech and the President will likely get a short term bump in the polls.
However it’s worth pointing out that past Presidents like Clinton and Reagan could also deliver speeches like this but it didn’t mean that the Congress moved to pass their agenda. The speeches went well but they didn’t always deliver in terms of policy, and this seems especially true with the SOTU’s.
Part of the reason for this, I think, is that these speeches very seldom present much in terms of a bold new policy agenda. When JFK called for us to go to the moon, when LBJ quoted from We Shall Overcome, those were bold departures and caught the imagination of the country.
By contrast, most of what President Obama called for tonight is the same stuff he’s called for in prior speeches. There was a little more emphasis on some middle class policies but for the most part it was the same as before. A good example of this was when he discussed the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. All day the media had been hyping the idea that he was going to call on Congress to repeal the policy.
Had he done that, had he directly challenged Congress by telling them “I call on the Congress now to repeal the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Program” that would have been very bold. But instead he simply said that he would ‘work with Congress and the military to repeal it’.
This is pretty much what he has said a number of times before, most recently at the HRC dinner in 2009. It was far from a bold or dramatic new policy.
I’m not blaming him for that, sort of by definition when you give a SOTU speech you are promoting your agenda and obviously that agenda is not going to be new. In addition perhaps because they are trying to push the main agenda there is a natural reluctance to take too bold of a stance on new policies. You just can’t stack too much stuff all at once.
I also think that the pattern of spending a good chunk of the speech making excuses for why everything bad is someone else’s fault while every good thing is solely because of his policies is getting a bit old. If you want to sit in the big chair it’s time to move past the ‘not me/he did it’ and get on with policy and moving forward.
This is not to say that I didn’t like much of what was in the speech. I liked his call for tax cuts to help out small businesses, I approve of expanding educational opportunities, I support health care reform. I might not entirely agree with him on every detail of how to accomplish these goals but I do think that for the most part the policies he discussed were good ones.
However discussing policies and actually accomplishing them are two very different things. He called for much of this in his 2008 campaign and his 2009 speeches but that doesn’t mean we’ve gotten much done. Much of this is due to the partisan divide in Washington and while I agree with Obama that it needs to come to an end I’m not particularly confident that it will.
I’m not going to get into the blame game on that other than to say I think both sides share the blame for the mess. I plan some future posts on the subject so for now I’ll stick to the SOTU and response.
Speaking of the response I think that the GOP has certainly established the new pattern. Having the address in the State Capitol building with an audience made it much more effective than past efforts by both parties (Republicans under Obama/Clinton or Democrats under Bush/Bush/Reagan).
In fact my guess is that in future years both parties will adopt a similar kind of setting. By definition any response to a SOTU from the US Capitol building will not match up but at least this helps out a little.
Regarding the specifics of what the GOP response said I’d give a similar response to what I did with Obama. I liked much of what they said in broad policy terms. I do think we need to curb spending (indeed this is one thing all sides seemed to agree on tonight) and I do prefer government to be as local as possible. But like with Obama my general agreement as to broad policy terms does not always translate to specific agreement on specific items.
So my overall reaction to both addresses might be summed up as good image but not much new policy.
The real test will be putting action with the words. And that goes for both sides. Obama says he wants to cut spending, streamline government, work with both parties. The GOP says they want to reach across the aisle. It’s time for both of them to do just that.
The Democrats need to accept that they cannot simply dictate policy and expect the GOP to fall in line. The GOP needs to accept that they are in the minority and so they will have to accept things they might not love. And both sides need to accept that the other has legitimate views and that sometimes they need to agree to disagree without calling the other side evil.
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