AmericasNewsNow.com Breaking News | Obama’s State of the Union AddressThis article titled “The state of the union: the president’s appeasement strategy” was written by Michael Tomasky, for guardian.co.uk on Wednesday 26th January 2011 04.43 UTC
The answer to one of my questions heading into this state of the union address came very early. I’d been wondering what kind of impact the much-ballyhooed, first-time mixed seating – senators and House members breaking the tradition of sitting on separate sides of the chamber by party, and mingling for the first time – would have on the theatre of this event.
It took less than three minutes to get an answer to that. Even right as Barack Obama reached the podium at 9.10pm, the bursts of applause were shorter. There’s always been a completely superfluous second round of introductory applause, because the president is introduced twice. Sometimes, five minutes is spent in applause before the president even speaks. Tonight, the second round was abruptly brief. Even the applause for Obama’s inevitable tribute to Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, which came early on, was shorter than expected.
So, having to sit next to members of the opposition clearly made members of the majority a little self-conscious about those self-congratulatory and pandering bursts of applause whenever the incumbent explains how deeply he loves apple pie and motherhood. This will be a good thing in the long run, but it was a little odd tonight, as was the speech itself in certain respects.
First, what was good about it. It was pitched firmly toward the political middle, which was widely expected, but I was more struck at how firmly it was pitched towards the future. Innovation, education and infrastructure are about the future, Obama said; only by investing in these three areas can we stay competitive:
“The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100. Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there’s an internet connection.”
I would suspect that this got through to centrist voters. We know from polling that these are pretty popular investments. I don’t think the Republicans have set themselves up well here. When Americans hear the word “investment”, said Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell earlier Tuesday, they know it’s “Latin for Washington spending.” Maybe they do, but it’s Washington spending that a solid majority of them like – even if the GOP base abhors it.
Likewise, a solid majority supports Obama on ending tax cuts for the upper brackets. I’m sure the president is perfectly happy to let the GOP play only to its base by opposing him on these positions.
This state of the union speech also seemed to tap the national mood just about right. It acknowledged that times are still hard, but the mood of the country is a little better now than it was four or five months ago, and he reflected that. The address was just upbeat enough, I thought – and certainly delivered ebulliently, maybe one notch too much so.
That’s what was good about the speech. The odd thing about the speech was how dramatically non-confrontational it was. Yes, there was the normal Obama post-partisan language to which we’ve all become accustomed:
“With their votes, [the people have] determined that governing will now be a shared responsibility between parties. New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans. We will move forward together, or not at all – for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics.”
But it went far beyond that. Obama almost never used language designed to throw down a challenge to Republicans or raise the hairs on the back on their necks. On taxes for the rich, he came sort of close; otherwise, nothing. There were goals and priorities and so forth that Republicans will certainly disagree with. But there weren’t any lines drawn in the sand. Think, for example, about how confrontational he could have been on healthcare, for example. Or on spending, or on social security.
For the most part, it went unsaid.
That’s a rhetorical choice, and it’s one that is probably rooted in a White House decision along these lines. Huge fights are coming, and much mud is to be slung. This address, which, for most Americans, constitutes the first salvo in this battle, was intended to be strictly mud-free: present Obama as reasonable, middle-of-the-road, chastened by last November, but still progressive enough that he wants to do some of your traditional Democratic things (spend money on infrastructure and schools). Let the Republicans throw the first mud-balls. Then, later, he can waive the muddy shirt: “See, America, I tried, but these people are just so darn unreasonable.”
That can work. Given that Republicans’ budget logic does not remotely resemble our earth logic, I’d guess it probably will work. But he’s going to have to draw those lines in the sand some time. In this speech, he merely put that task off for another day.
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