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Obama’s SOTU Address Comes Up a Bit Short

He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient;
Article II Section 3, United States Constitution

The lead up to State of the Union addresses are filled with such overwrought opining and expectations that they are bound to disappoint, if only a little. George Washington delivered the first SOTU in 1790. Thomas Jefferson didn’t feel compelled to give the speech in person. Now, this presidential address before both Houses of Congress is the political equivalent of the Super Bowl. That is until the next big super-consequential event of grave importance take place.

Last night President Barack Obama delivered his second SOTU address. A common theme throughout the speech was “Winning The Future” through an agenda of innovation, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and improving education. “We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time.  We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world… That’s how our people will prosper.  That’s how we’ll win the future”, the president said.

Nothing disagreeable there. And the president didn’t say really anything new either. But because we invest so much time, thought and analysis into these speeches they are judged by a greater metric than smart policy prescriptions.

Was the president inspiring and moving? Did he articulate a deeper rationale for his policies? Did he say things that might be unpopular but true, did he take some risks? Unfortunately, this speech didn’t do that.

The president likened the challenges we face to that of putting a man on the moon;

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon.  The science wasn’t even there yet.  NASA didn’t exist.  But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs…This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.

And subsequently called for increased investments in R&D, clean technology, and renewable energy. Yet nowhere in his speech was there mention of climate change or global warming. Of this glaring omission Matt Yglesias said that it “reflects political reality, but it also reflects the greatest failure of Barack Obama’s term in office.”

"Words, words, words, I'm so sick of words … if you're in love, show me!"

The president was stirring and moving at times. Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post, gushingly writes that It was the eloquent, post-partisan, uniter-not-a-divider President Obama who appeared in the House chamber tonight. It was his second State of the Union address, but the first with the lift and vision of his best campaign speeches.”

“What comes of this moment is up to us.  What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow” the president said, in one of this best lines of the night.

But the president and the speech were at times in conflict with each other. The country needs critical investments in the economy and in people. The thrust of the president’s speech articulated this while at the same time calling for a freeze on “domestic” or discretionary spending over the next five years.

“A fundamental and ideological disagreement is at hand: government is evil, government can help. Obama is conceding part of the argument (yes, we must do something about spending) to win the argument (we must engage in communal action to survive and succeed in the global economy)”, David Corn writes in Mother Jones.

And maybe most disappointing, were some of the other notable items missing from the speech: gun control, any reference about the poor, any mention about the unscrupulous activities of Wall St., Guantanamo, and Pell Grant funding. The section of the speech about the war in Afghanistan felt obligatory. An item on the must-mention checklist.

But hey, in America “we do big things.”

It was thought that this speech would provide Barack Obama an opportunity to find the Obama of the 2008 campaign. The candidate who’s raison d’être for running was not a list of polices but to change Washington and somehow bring together a disparate nation. Obama’s SOTU was good (at least the pundits and the public initially think so), but it didn’t reconnect us and Obama to himself.

What did you think of the speech?

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