President Obama gave his first official State of the Union address last night. He gave a similar speech at a similar time last year, but he had just taken office, so the White House did not call that one a State of the Union. This time, it’s POTUS’s first SOTU, as the insiders would say.
How did he do? The classic dictum has it that ‘you campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose’. President Obama fully embodied that wisdom last night. The speech was pugnacious, tried to settle a number of scores, and spent a lot more time justifying this new administration’s actions than it did painting a picture of the future. In some ways, it was a post-modern political speech for a post-modern era, an era of irony, diminished expectations, and even sarcasm.
POTUS’s first SOTU was prose. He’s moved from ‘Yes We Can!’ to ‘I don’t quit.’
The candidate said this:
Farmers and scholars, statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.
The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least 20 more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.
The office-holder says this:
If there's one thing that has unified Democrats and Republicans, and everybody in between, it's that we all hated the bank bailout. I hated it. I hated it. You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal.
The language is simple, direct, and repetitive. It’s prose, not poetry.
But when I ran for president, I promised I wouldn't just do what was popular — I would do what was necessary. And if we had allowed the meltdown of the financial system, unemployment might be double what it is today. More businesses would certainly have closed. More homes would have surely been lost.
So I supported the last administration's efforts to create the financial rescue program.
This trend is not a good one; presidents should make their speeches about the audience, not about themselves.
But in addition to this increasingly self-referential language, there is a new humility:
Our administration has had some political setbacks this year and some of them were deserved. But I wake up every day knowing that they are nothing compared to the setbacks that families all across this country have faced this year.
That’s a first, at least in recent memory – a president taking some responsibility for things that went wrong.
Another possible first – the president resorted to sarcasm:
Rather than fight the same tired battles that have dominated Washington for decades, it's time to try something new. Let's invest in our people without leaving them a mountain of debt. Let's meet our responsibility to the citizens who sent us here. Let's try common sense. A novel concept.
What does this new pugnacious, sarcastic, blunt, simple populist language mean for the public discourse? Coming from a local congressperson, it would not be remarkable. But this language is coming from the President Obama who recently said the following in Oslo –
A decade into a new century, this old architecture is buckling under the weight of new threats. The world may no longer shudder at the prospect of war between two nuclear superpowers, but proliferation may increase the risk of catastrophe. Terrorism has long been a tactic, but modern technology allows a few small men with outsized rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale.
This new tone represents a remarkable departure for President Obama. The cynical would say, a new speechwriter got the SOTU assignment. But presidents control their rhetoric, and they pay particular attention to the State of the Union, since it’s the one speech that everyone listens to each year. So the new tone is deliberate.
Perhaps it’s a new realism. Perhaps Obama has been bruised by a very tough first year in office. I welcome the directness of the realism, but I also think that the country needs both poetry and prose from the Commander in Chief.