RHODE ISLAND! Congratulations, Rhode Island! Come on down!
Apparently, as a political blogger, even a new one, I am required by law to say something about the State of the Union Address. (This is one of the many infamous new regulations President Obama added to the Federal Register, right after his regulation setting the legal maximum height of public school teachers at 7’2″ and the one regulating human sweat as a pollutant.)
This is too bad, because the State of the Union Address, politically speaking, is the least consequential night of the year. Absolutely nothing new happens whatsoever. There is no Congressional floor action (which, as Jon Stewart observed, is much less exciting than it sounds), no surprising new policy proposals (ever), and the worst our representatives can do to argue over it is sit on their hands during the applause lines. Do you remember when Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouted, “You lie!” at the president two years ago? And everyone’s heads exploded about the death of civility in Washington and the imminent fall of the Republic? That was my favorite moment in Congressional addresses in years. You know how the Brits do it? Like this. You know how often they have these sessions? For an hour, four days a week. Seriously, if you have cable, go watch Question Time on C-SPAN 2. Despite having no clue what any of the issues are, you will not be disappointed.
But, nobody shouted out this year, and the Supreme Court decided to show even after the President’s silly attack on them in last year’s address. (Or was it the year before? Oh, right — I don’t care.) That meant there was only one interesting thing to do: people-watch.
And I don’t think there can be any disagreement from anyone who watched it. The absolute best part of the night was the handsome Eric Cantor (R-VA). Joe Biden struggling not to pick his nose was a close second.
Alright, so, the speech. It was probably the President’s best speech since he took office. This was, in part, because it sounded a great deal like a President Bush speech. Our troops and their war in Iraq have made us safer at home and respected abroad. Really, Mr. President? I wonder what Candidate Obama would say to that. American is “the indispensable nation”. Really, Mr. President? You’ve been pointedly avoiding any reference to American Exceptionalism for three years now; why quit here? He said, at one point, quoting Abraham Lincoln, “That Government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more,” which, for a moment, I thought was supposed to be a laugh line. Republicans can only hope that Mr. Obama’s conversions of heart on these points are heartfelt and sincere.
Unfortunately, when the President speaks of energy development and energy independence, it is clear that he speaks from craven hypocrisy. The two great legacies this president has left American energy are Solyndra and the Keystone XL cancellation. We’ll call the oil spill a wash, since his actions to sharply reduce offshore drilling expansion in its wake is at least defensible under the principles he’s articulated. The President continues to labor, meanwhile, under the evidently sincere belief that the Congress in Washington is a wiser appropriator of funds than the American people or the several states, and calls upon legislators to put its fingers in even more pies. It is telling that the President blamed the recession entirely on those horrible, evil big bankers and lenders, and reserved no criticism for our government’s considerable role in pushing those lenders by policy and fueling them by the Federal Reserve’s stupidly low interest rates. It is telling that the President is able to blame both parties in Congress for the abuse of the filibuster without apologizing to the nation for his own abuse of it during his short term as a Senator.
In short, the President reminds me of a well-meaning Bob Page: wanting the best for the world, but incapable of imagining the world achieving anything without his immaculate hand at the rudder. (Bob is the one with the cigarette.) But he hit all the right beats: Americans want to raise taxes on the rich, they want infrastructure spending, they don’t want to cut spending, especially hate entitlement reform, and they are willing to pretend there is no looming debt crisis. They love America, the troops, and the 1950s, all of which were nerves President Obama tried to hit tonight. Never mind that it is the sort of environmental regulation that killed Keystone XL that make it impossible to build Hoover Dam or the Interstate Highway System today. Never mind that middle-class America was worse off by every material standard in 1954 compared to today, and that’s without recalling how much more terrible it was to be black or poor or both at the time.
Irony of Ironies: it is now the progressive Democrats, not the Moral Majority Republicans, who find themselves longing for a Leave It to Beaver era that never existed! I hope this means we get another movie about Joan Allen setting a tree on fire. (WARNING: Link mildly NSFW.)
But I digress. The point is: great speech, Mr. President. People will like it, on the whole. I even liked it. At least, I liked the parts where I wasn’t hitting my head really hard, and that’s because I’m a policy wonk, not a citizen. For instance, when you point out, “Of course, it’s not enough for us to increase student aid. We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we’ll run out of money,” the answer is, “Yes, we need to cut student aid, because it is fueling that tuition increase and making college unaffordable for the very kids we are supposedly helping.” The answer is not, “States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets.” AAAAAAGH! The money you’re spending on student aid is taxed away from the states in the first place! You’ve already left them broke! Putting more student aid in the budget could only be done by printing money for it! You’re insane!
Oh, dear. I keep trying to praise the president, and keep ending up calling him a well-meaning lunatic instead. So let’s stop trying and turn to the Republican response, which was the only interesting part of the night. It, too, was a dull and unsurprising speech, and it was only interesting because there’s serious talk of drafting Mitch Daniels to run for president, on account of Gov. Romney and Mr. Gingrich being terrible candidates and the GOP establishment despising my man Ron Paul as a backup. Daniels gave a fine speech. It was too negative following the president’s extremely positive tone, but laid out a good case for why the Republicans have acted — and must continue to act — the way they have, offering real budget solutions that the President and the Senate have slapped down hard while pursuing Utopia through spending and regulation. Daniels would very likely be a better candidate than either of the GOP frontrunners, and, unlike Mr. Perry and Ms. Bachmann and Mr. Christie, has been reasonably well-vetted for the national stage well in advance. I’d be happy to see him use this as an opportunity for a late entry into the race (although my support remains behind Mr. Paul). We’ll see.
Gosh, I hate State of the Union nights. Good night, world.