Listening to the chin-strokerati, anyone would have expected Barack Obama to enter the House chamber Wednesday night and say:
“The state of our union is . . . cool” (wearing sunglasses)
“The state of our union is . . . all my fault” (wearing sackcloth and ashes)
He said neither.
Instead Pres. Obama said, in effect, the state of our union is . . . dysfunctional. (Transcript here, via the Chicago Sun-Times.)
First, as always, the optics:
Obama at the podium (nice suit, Mr. President), with Vice President Joe (Bobblehead) Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Sesame Street) behind him.
Pres. Obama started out with a stately and compelling paean to the American people.
They share a stubborn resilience in the face of adversity. After one of the most difficult years in our history, they remain busy building cars and teaching kids, starting businesses and going back to school. They’re coaching Little League and helping their neighbors. One woman wrote to me and said, “We are strained but hopeful, struggling but encouraged.
It’s because of this spirit — this great decency and great strength — that I have never been more hopeful about America’s future than I am tonight. Despite our hardships, our union is strong. We do not give up. We do not quit. We do not allow fear or division to break our spirit. In this new decade, it’s time the American people get a government that matches their decency; that embodies their strength.
Throughout his speech, Obama similarly used the American people and what they deserve as a cudgel to whack Republican lawmakers in Congress.
He also used his predecessor, George W. Bush, to lay America’s problems off on.
So I supported the last administration’s efforts to create the financial rescue program. And when we took that program over, we made it more transparent and more accountable. And as a result, the markets are now stabilized, and we’ve recovered most of the money we spent on the banks.
At the beginning of the last decade, the year 2000, America had a budget surplus of over $200 billion. By the time I took office, we had a one-year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade. Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program. On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget. All this was before I walked in the door.
From some on the right, I expect we’ll hear a different argument — that if we just make fewer investments in our people, extend tax cuts including those for the wealthier Americans, eliminate more regulations, maintain the status quo on health care, our deficits will go away. The problem is that’s what we did for eight years.
We have gone from a bystander to a leader in the fight against climate change.
My administration has a Civil Rights Division that is once again prosecuting civil rights violations and employment discrimination.
Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will.
Over all, Obama was alternately confrontational and collegial, making the assembled lawmakers look like players in a game of Whack-a-Mole: Some of his lines brought Democrats to their feet, others got Republicans standing.
But it’s hard to argue with the conclusion to his speech:
The spirit that has sustained this nation for more than two centuries lives on in you, its people. We have finished a difficult year. 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.
We should live so long.