Once Again the State of the Union Makes a President Strong

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Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. His latest book is: Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents (Basic Books).

The State of the Union Address is Woodrow Wilson’s gift to future presidents. President Thomas Jefferson submitted the annual update the Constitution mandated in writing, deeming presidential appearances before Congress too monarchical. In December 1913, after his first year in office, Wilson decided to address a joint session of Congress directly. Ninety-six-years and a little more than one month later, Barack Obama took full advantage of President Wilson’s gift, appearing crisp and commanding after weeks when even the so-far-embarrassingly-pliant Washington press corps was starting to doubt Obama’s allure.

The mathematics of the State of the Union enhance the dramatics. There stands the Commander in Chief – nowadays the Celebrity in Chief, too – flanked by his Vice President and the Speaker of the House. Things in Washington have become so staged that, this year, when Vice President Joseph Biden’s purple tie matched Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s purple outfit observers wondered if their staffers coordinated their clothing. Everyone else crowded into the House of Representatives chamber is also reduced to a prop. Cabinet members, Supreme Court Justices, Generals of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 100 Senators, and 435 Representatives, sit in the well. America’s legislators end up looking ridiculous not just diminished, as the members of the President’s party bob up and down giving their leader repeated standing ovations and loud “Huzzahs!” while their rivals alternate between clapping begrudgingly and sitting in stony silence. The President wafts over the chaos, doling out his pearls of wisdom, as the people’s representatives act like schoolkids engaged in locker-room antics.

These days, the magic of television magnifies the speech’s power. The first State of the Union speech was broadcast on radio in 1923, and on television in 1947, benefitting Harry Truman as he began planning a 1948 campaign few thought he would win. Televising the speech further trivializes America’s political elite because the President speaks past them to the real audience, the American people.

Obama started strong. His presence, his fluidity, his characteristic calm and charm, reminded Americans why they elected him. Rather than trying to play cute with the usual formulation – some variation at the beginning of “the state of our union is strong” – he acknowledged the economic “devastation” and Americans’ “anxieties.” Evoking the Civil War and World War II, the Great Depression and the Civil Rights Movement, he reminded Americans that, when tested before, they “answer[ed] history’s call.”

Obama quickly plunged into a much-needed defense of the bank bailout and his stimulus plan. In his most human moment, he acknowledged that Democrats and Republicans united in hating the bailout: “I hated it. You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal.” His stimulus defense appeared more substantive as he detailed the bill’s accomplishments. But to avoid being too professorial, Obama failed to connect the dots, not quite explaining how that controversial bill actually created the jobs he enumerated.

On health care, Obama struck the right balance between being resolute and contrite. For a “Mr. Spock” type far more similar to George W. Bush in refusing to be self-critical than to the perpetually-apologetic Bill Clinton, Obama said: “I take my share of the blame for not explaining it [the health care reform] more clearly to the American people.” As usual, Obama was better at restating the need for reform than justifying his particular prescription, but he used the power of the podium brilliantly in challenging the opposition, saying: “if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors and stop insurance company abuses, let me know.” An uncomfortable silence reigned among the chastened Republicans, who seemed to shrink more.

Perhaps the night’s most poignant moment came when America’s political messiah of 2008 confessed his mortality in 2010. “I campaigned on the promise of change…,” the Yes-we-can man said, “[b]ut remember this - I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone. Democracy in a nation of three hundred million people can be noisy and messy and complicated.” The President was half-right. Change is hard; but his campaign certainly implied it would be easy, which was part of its charm then, and explains the inevitable disappointment now.

Obama finished with a pep talk for partisans combined with the storyline he hopes will hold the independents. “We have finished a difficult year. We have come through a difficult decade,” he said, once again bashing Bush. “But a new year has come. A new decade stretches before us. We don't quit. I don't quit,” he roared, flashing the partisan steel he honed in Chicago’s political wards. “Let's seize this moment -- to start anew, to carry the dream forward, and to strengthen our union once more.”

For all the optics, one strong State of the Union address is not enough to redeem a presidency – it is too much of a “gimme,” too much of a set up, to change history. But the 2010 State of the Union showed that the obituaries pronouncing Obama’s political demise were premature. And his acknowledgment that “change” would not be easy was a rare understatement.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 2/7/2010

At the rate he is going, Obama will be so unpopular that he cannot even attempt to be renominated. Instead he will hang around annoying us for years as a condescending and insufferable ex-president, serving up tired old Marxist nostrums, long since discredited, to anyone who will listen.

He might serve to galvanize the Republicans into a strong majority again, which he is doing now, and I suppose that would actually make him a consequential historical figure.

Maarja Krusten - 2/2/2010

I, too, generally like Dr. Troy's take on things although I regret that he seems to busy these days, he puts in no appearances under his own articles.

Because I’m a centrist and moderate, I find some of the extreme rhetoric directed at Barack Obama to be as baffling as that which was directed at George W. Bush. I've mentioned here on HNN previously that I believe some of the angst we're seeing these days comes from dissonance, from the fact that Americans, like all people, like praise but realize they could have done some things differently. How can we admit to being selfish when we’re “the greatest people in the greatest nation in the world?” Better to look for someone, anyone to blame, it seems. Yet it’s clear that the World War II generation and the Baby Boomers didn't handle their personal and political stewardship obligations very well. I keep thinking of that classic scene in one of my favorite films, On the Waterfront, when Marlon Brando's character, Terry, winces as he listens to his brother's excuses and tells him as they ride together in the taxicab, "It was you, Charlie. It was you."

David Brooks refers to the responsibility issue once again today. See

Brooks writes, “The odd thing is that when you turn to political life, we are living in an age of reverse-generativity. Far from serving the young, the old are now taking from them. First, they are taking money. According to Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institution, the federal government now spends $7 on the elderly for each $1 it spends on children.

Second, they are taking freedom. In 2009, for the first time in American history, every single penny of federal tax revenue went to pay for mandatory spending programs, according to Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute. As more money goes to pay off promises made mostly to the old, the young have less control.

Third, they are taking opportunity. For decades, federal spending has hovered around 20 percent of G.D.P. By 2019, it is forecast to be at 25 percent and rising. The higher tax rates implied by that spending will mean less growth and fewer opportunities. Already, pension costs in many states are squeezing education spending.

In the private sphere, in other words, seniors provide wonderful gifts to their grandchildren, loving attention that will linger in young minds, providing support for decades to come. In the public sphere, they take it away.”

Brooks believes it is up to ordinary citizens rather than the political classes to resolve some of the tensions. Still, he notes, “It may seem unrealistic — to expect a generation to organize around the cause of nonselfishness. But in the private sphere, you see it every day.”

Tim Matthewson - 2/1/2010

I like the way that Troy has positioned Obama as a moderate faced by elements on the right and the left. I would take issued with Troy's claim in an earlier book that Reagan is a moderate, but he seems to be moving away from that position in this essay. Troy has written another very strong essay and has established himself as a major commentator on American politics.

Arnold Shcherban - 1/30/2010

as a President and a person of principle and integrity in practically all areas pertaining to his current political activity is real and undeniable.
However, it happened (which I predicted about half a year ago as happening) not because of his too liberal, "socialist" views and practice, but out of the lack of those along with indecisiveness, hesitation, and the narcissistic desire to be liked by all (or, at least, by a majority) parties involved, which pushed him onto the treacherous road of compromises on general principles that cannot be compromised on without
killing the main rationale of the suggested economic and social reforms.
Thus he presented himself as a typical centrist Democrat on domestic issues and hawkish Republican on the international ones, albeit with a soft rhetoric of an experienced demagogue. The left Democrats that foolishly believed his promise of a real change, especially in Washington politics, are greatly disappointed and feel cheated and the right Democrats together with Republicans fully realized that the President is too inexperienced, weak on ideological principles and in character, and therefore the democratic ideas he branded out to succeed in electoral campaign and timidly attempted to implement during the first half year of the presidency could be easily
resisted (and defeated) on all fronts.
By now, they are as good as defeated.

Maarja Krusten - 1/30/2010

Not really, it's just another mechanism. For example, the Presidential Records Act, with which my colleagues at the National Archives worked, set up releasae procedures for archival records. President Bush issued an Executive Order in 2002 to change one portion of its implementation. There were some members of Congress who tried to change it back during his term in office but the amending legislation never reached a floor vote. So there are various mechanism that are used to implement things in Washington. Not every action is done through statutory modification. The Bush E.O. in 2002 did not focus on national security. But the protection of national security information in government records has been affected both by legislative and presidential action since World War II.

James Daniel Beall - 1/30/2010

Ahh, thank you. That makes a bit more sense. Isn't he still skirting a decision made by the Senate?

Maarja Krusten - 1/30/2010

Please overlook the many typos, I really do need to manicure my fingernails. No disrespect intended to Dr. Troy or any of his readers, natch.

Maarja Krusten - 1/30/2010

No, no, not executive privilege, an executive order. Totally different thing. If your read the newspapers before the SOTU, you would seen plenty of reports about the fact that option one was a legislatively established commission and option two was a Presidentially estblished one through the executive order mechanism. Its iuse is very, very routine, presidents of both parties have been issuing such orders for decaces, nothing to be alarmed about.

Executive privilege is totally different as it relates to disclosure of information. I used to work as a federal archivist, we dealt with a lot of privilege related issues. As it happens, a "presidential communications privilege" exists as part of the Presidential Records Act mechanism. It does not cover national security in the PRA environment but can be applied to materials we archivists have been able to declassify or otherwise have cleared for disclosure. Nixon tried to claim privilege over a pretty wide range of things, including his effort to remove some Jewish employees from their positions at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We were able to get that document released but it took some time. HNN being HNN, LOL, I'll put in my immunity statemen that I had voted for Nixon,

Hope this helps!

James Daniel Beall - 1/30/2010

Mr. Troy,

Did you get a Matthews-like "chill down your leg" during the speech? My overall impression of the speech was that he was nowhere near the powerful, energizing figure that emerged on the campaign trail. "An uncomfortable silence reigned among the chastened Republicans, who seemed to shrink more."? Really? So the Republicans had been pleasantly chatting during the speech, but at this moment of which you speak they became unusually silent? Likewise, I must applaud your incredible powers of perception as you witnessed the Republicans shrinking as they ceased their previously rude chatter.

You also mentioned the quote where Obama said, “I take my share of the blame for not explaining it [the health care reform] more clearly...." the president made 411 speeches during his first year in office. If it was possible to explain that 2,000 page monstrosity, he would have. God morphed into Einstein's body could not explain it to Voltaire.

The Republican Party DOES have a health care plan that covers more people than the Pelosi/Reid/Obama mess, at half the cost (you can actually find it online if you were one day inclined to seek the truth). The facts of this plan were even judged by the White House's own Budget Office to be what I've just stated.

You also mentioned the Jobs Bill I (better known as the Stimulus Plan). It failed. Do you know how I know? Because Obama is trying to push part II. The Stimulus Plan, by Obama's own barometer, was meant to create millions of new jobs and prevent unemployment from rising above 8% (oops). If your barometer for the Plan's success is unemployment and job creation, then IT'S A JOBS BILL. Following the logic, if the first $800 billion dollar Jobs Bill was a success, we would NOT need a second.

One point you failed to mention was Obama's attempt to scold and intimidate the other EQUAL AND SEPARATE branch of the government- the Supreme Court. Justice Alito mouthed (we think), "That's not true." Do you know why? Because Obama was LYING. He said the recent ruling opened the way for foreign businesses to affect elections, when the ruling expressly forbade it.

I will close with one last comment by the President that you failed to comment upon: Obama said the Senate recently voted down a bill (for the creation of an economic panel, I believe...someone can help me with the specifics on this), but that he was going to do it anyway by invoking Executive Privilege. Wow. When the Burger Court ruled on Executive Privilege, they stated it was to be used only for national security situations. Our elected representatives said "no," but Obama is going to do it anyway. can someone please explain "tyranny" to me?

Danny Beall