President Barack Obama’s State Of The Union Message: “We Do Big Things”
Tuesday evening, President Barack Obama delivered his second State of the Union to the 112th Congress and the nation. The 62-minute speech was interrupted 75 times by applause, but lacked the boisterous responses that accompany most presidential addresses. Partisan support and dissent was tempered by what has been called, “date night,” as Republicans and Democrats agreed to sit together in a symbolic show of unity after the tragedy in Tucson, Arizona.
Riding a 14-point shift in his job approval numbers, the President remained conciliatory for most of the speech—a shift in tone from last year’s when he was pushing for health-care reform. He focused on moving forward from the contentiousness and partisanship that has marred recent political debate, but doing so in an effort to face the country’s new challenges. Calling this point in American history a “Sputnik moment,” President Barack Obama asked both parties to focus on competing with the rest of the world, pointing to areas where we have fallen behind.
Focusing on education, infrastructure and investment, the President said, “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” And this was the theme of his speech: competing in new realities using old American ideals to win the future.
Although President Obama chose not to bring up the issue of gun control as many had hoped, Hardball’s Chris Matthews did report he would in a separate address.
Obama’s signature grandiloquence and warm-hearted approach has led many to criticize the substance of Tuesday’s speech. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell called the speech “vague” while NBC Political Contributor Pat Buchanan said it was “flat.” Well, maybe pundits and political junkies want to sit through a five-hour lecture on policy specifics and budgetary measures, but most Americans want a summary of what the President plans on doing this year and a dose of hope for the future before they go to bed. Given that the speech only lasted an hour, there were specific and substantive policy points. On the issue of deficit reduction, President Obama called for a spending freeze that would save $400 billion over the next five years; simplifying the tax code; a $100 billion cut in Defense spending which Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has supported; and earmark reform, exclaiming, “If a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside I will veto it.”
President Obama pushed for Congress to approve recent trade agreements with China, India, and South Korea that would support 320,000 American jobs. He also said he would take up Medicare and Social Security reform as long as cuts were not on the backs of our “most vulnerable citizens.” And for Democrats who feel like there was too much centralism in the air, he passionately called on Congress to pass The Dream Act and took a shot at the Republicans’ cut and slash mantra, saying, “Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may make you feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you feel the impact.”
The President was at his best when silently and not-so-silently pitting China as the ‘”other” superpower in his “Us vs. Them” fight for the future. With China’s rapid economic expansion, growing ownership of American debt and recent academic scores that have shamed our education system, there is a growing fear America is stalling like the gas guzzling cars of yesteryear with which we’re so in love. But like any good leader, he presented our problems as opportunities, as if to say: I hear them coming, but we are stronger, faster, and smarter, and we will win this race.
On the heels of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit, President Obama’s speech seamlessly advocated for spending on infrastructure, new technology, and innovation—a nod to Democratic ideas for building an economy of tomorrow. But he also called for reexamining corporate regulations, tort reform, and threw his support behind the Bipartisan Deficit Commission—a nod to Republican ideas on supporting business growth.
Everything he said came back to this fight for the future a.k.a. beating China. Deficit reduction—to win the future. Education reform—to win the future. New technology—to win the future. There was nothing liberal or conservative about his message. It was as American as a Ford Pickup, as nonpartisan as a purple tie and so patriotic it seemed as though Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy had written it on top of Mount Rushmore. The only thing missing was Shania Twain singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” And that is not to deride the tone or feel-good rhetoric—it’s what was needed: a great deal of American pride, minus the American arrogance.
Combining both Republican and Democratic ideas, President Obama came across like a problem-solver, not a partisan politician. By rejecting the false choices of spend or cut that both parties often present, Obama was, once again, the grown-up in the room. Praising the American capacity for greatness, he was able to unite those who pine for the industrious America of old and those who feel like America’s greatest days are ahead of us.
“We do big things,” he said. “From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare the dream. That’s how we win the future.” Time will tell if his vision will take root, grand words met with grand improvements, and his call for cooperation in the interest of America will be heard. Nevertheless, if Sputnik is in the air, then this night’s State of the Union was an applause-worthy launching pad.