Despite my chosen profession, I have never been a fan of the State of the Union address. Although President Obama’s speech before Congress was technically not an SOTU address, it had all the trappings: a cabinet member abandoned in a secure location, a visitors’ gallery full of human interest stories, and an absurdly large number of standing ovations. Because I find most of these rituals silly and annoying, I generally must force myself to watch in the hopes of obtaining new insights about the president’s agenda and approach to governance.
My gamble paid off only partially tonight. It was clearly a well-written and delivered speech. The president did a very good job of highlighting his priorities. Some may argue that in the current economic crisis progress on health, education, and the environment is improbable in the short run. But he made a good case for linking these priorities to economic recovery. I am at least reassured that Obama did not deliver a Clintonesque laundry list chock full of v-chips and school uniforms.
But in many other regards the speech was disappointing. It was never more specific on policy matters than a campaign stump speech. If the markets crave more details on the bank recovery and housing plans, they will go to bed hungry. His proposals on health, education, and the environment did not break any new ground. About the only thing I learned is that he plans to repeat Clinton’s mistake of using a big multi-stakeholder commission to write the healthcare bill.
The speech was also politically incoherent at times. In discussing the bank recovery plan, he employed all of the populist tropes blaming the crisis on greedy, over-paid bankers. But then he turned to a full-throated defense of “trickle-down” bank recovery economics. It is hard to see how the populist rhetoric is going to help sell a policy of massive subsidies to the financial sector.
I was especially concerned with some of the president’s statements and rhetoric on trade. He has long struggled to reconcile his internationalist pro-trade sympathies with the more protectionist elements of his base. Given that congressional Democrats are pushing “Buy American” provisions and restrictions on Mexican truck drivers, I had hoped for a stronger assertion of the president’s commitment to trade. Instead I heard a lot of economic nationalism. What’s wrong with Korean batteries for plug-in hybrids? Why does there have to be an “American” automobile industry (as opposed to autos built in the U.S. by international firms)? He did commit to working with the G20 to fight the rising tide of protectionism, but I fear that he’s part of that wave.
- Did anyone find Speaker Pelosi’s behavior and body language as bizarre as I did? The energetic bounding from her seat and exaggerated clapping upon each semi-colon made her look goofy. At times, Joe Biden seemed embarrassed. I wonder if she is on retainer from the Daily Show.
- I know that politicians specialize in obtaining free media and getting face time with the big fish, but I was quite amused by the report that Elliot Engel (D-NY) obtained an aisle seat 12.5 hours before the speech started.
- At the risk of “messing with Joe,” let me say that I am not comforted by the fact that compliance with the stimulus bill will fall to an inter-agency task force headed by the vice-president.
- Didn’t Roland Burris seem like the loneliest guy in the room?