I watched the SOU expecting it to be a dramatic unveiling of a new, bold vision of principled progressive leadership, but I have to say, as much as I support the President, I was somewhat disappointed.
Many political pundits weighing in after the SOU argued that Obama has recast himself as a reasonable Centrist to garner the support of Independent voters. These voters are key to his reelection and represent those who are neither progressive nor conservative and who are tired of the endless political bickering between the Dems and Repubs over the last two years. And not just Independents, but moderate Republicans and Democrats alike who are concerned mostly about the economy. It was not a speech to appease ideologues. No talk of gun control, terrorism, abortion rights, gay marriage, or climate change.
It was about winning the future, a metaphor I don’t much like, though I understand the intent. Winning. It strikes a patriotic chord. Americans like to win. As a people, we want to be first in everything. As if a motivational speech, President Obama pointed out that America has slipped in a number of areas, notably in education. He argued that to win the future, we have to improve our educational system. Though short on details as to how he would achieve improvement, he put some of the blame on teachers and parents, which I think is unfair. No doubt there are incompetent teachers and troubled parents, but the problem is much more complex than that. As to teachers, on the balance, they are underpaid, under-resourced and under-appreciated. Young teachers often do not get the support they need to be successful which accounts for high turnover rates in the first 5 years. As to parents, the problem in some cases is their educational level which is why there should be more of an emphasis on and funding for adult education programs, something Obama did not mention at all. A parent who cannot speak or read English well, or has not completed high school, may not be able to provide the academic support at home the child needs.
The President said that we need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. But he did not address sufficiently the issue of out-sourcing. He argued that we should invest in clean green technology. I don’t disagree, but look at what happened when Massachusetts provided subsidies to Evergreen Solar to build a plant in Devens, MA. In less than 3 years, the plant closed down laying off 800 employees and fled to China where they receive substantial government support.
The President effectively listed some of the administrations accomplishments thus far: health care reform, repeal of DADT, the START Treaty, education reform via the Race to the Top grant proposal, troop draw downs, strengthening NATO. And he talked about the need to invest in infrastructure projects citing the examples of how China, South Korea and countries in Europe are out investing on projects for airports, roads, trains and internet expansion.
On the floor, there appeared to be more civility and unity. Colleagues from different parties sat together. There were fewer partisan moments, and no embarrassing “you lie” outbreaks. Behind the President sat a cool VP and a very fidgety Speaker, who looked like he needed a drink and a smoke. One awkward moment came when Obama mentioned the repeal of DADT. When the cameras panned to the generals in attendance, they showed absolutely no reaction whatsoever, though we know they supported the repeal. A big laugh came when Obama, speaking of government inefficiencies, joked that salmon where controlled by two different agencies depending on whether they were in fresh or salt water and he said it got really complicated when the salmon are smoked.
All in all, a good speech, one that attempted to recast the President as a Centrist who wants to work with both parties to get things done. It was not one of his better speeches, but effective. We’ll see just how effective in the coming months.