The State of the Union Address last night didn't live up to my worst expectations but it did incorporate many of the features that for me always render the occasion somewhat farcical.
I have decided that the best analogy is seal-feeding time at the zoo. The president - the presidential seal? - throws various sardines to the crowd. If the sleek-coated ones like what has been tossed their way, they get up on their hindquarters and clap their flippers together - arf, arf, arf!
A lot was tossed in the direction of the Republicans last night - tax cuts for small businesses, tough talk on Iran, support for nuclear energy, praise in general for private enterprise - but they were generally suspicious and off their feed. They would look around at each other after each sardine was thrown to see if they should rise up and make a show for the people at home. But many times they just sat on their flippers and looked bored.
Anybody who still thinks President Obama is a socialist would be hard-pressed to cite any evidence of that in this speech - not that evidence matters to those who think such a thing.
I was watching the PBS broadcast and David Brooks, New York Times columnist and reliably fair-minded conservative, was struck by the fact that, take health care out of it, and what Obama said was moderate. As for me, I would even include health care as part of this accurate assessment - a proposed system that leaves health insurers sitting pretty and does not include a public option strikes me as not all that radical.
It was a curious speech in some ways. It was almost as if it was written by two speech writers. A part of it - the first part, mostly - lacked electricity and was rather wonky. In part, this was because the tone of the first section was a pessimistic telling of the nation's economic difficulties and only later did it become optimistic. It was only after he spoke for about half an hour did the familiar Obama rhetorical flourishes kick in. I wonder if enough people tuned in long enough to hear that.
I did like the fact that Obama reminded the American people that he had cut taxes in a number of ways when he first came into office. This is something that many conservatives refuse to believe - when I wrote this in a column some months ago, I was called a liar or else challenged by people who jumped through hoops to explain why this did not matter. Heck, he's a Marxist. How could he have cut taxes? Ridiculous!
I also liked the fact that he firmly and effectively remade the case for health-care reform. I applauded the fact that he took on the partisanship that is poisoning the country. He projected some welcome toughness and resolve, even as he extended the hand of bipartisanship.
And I liked the fact that he finally committed to ending the don't-ask-don't-tell policy in the military - his one great concession last night to his liberal base.
It is past time. With gay marriage having made a beachhead in half a dozen states without uprooting the foundations of church and state, public attitudes have begun to change. Anyway, Obama has given the military brass pretty much everything they want - they in turn can salute and get on with the job of making military life less homo-phobic.
That said, parts of the speech were not especially believable. How can the deficit be brought down with large swatches of the budget (such as the military) off limits to cutting? Don't know. And do the American people really hate partisanship? My guess is only in principle. In practice, they seem to love it.
If the American people really hated partisanship, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck would be out of jobs, not adored by millions.
And for that reason, I think this good speech is likely not to matter much in the long run. Obama threw out some good sardines last night but they were pre-doomed to smell like dead fish to his incorrigible critics.
For a sense of what he said not making much of an impression, one only had to stay tuned to the Republican response by Virginia's new Gov. Bob McDonnell. This broke new ground. Instead of delivering the response from a sterile office as has been done with a sense of heightened boredom in the past, Gov. McDonnell spoke from the Virginia State Capitol surrounded by family and friends, who clapped enthusiastically at every opportunity.
There was some added entertainment value to this but the overall effect was somewhat weird. It came off as a political tupperware party for Stepford wives and others of like mind. The governor himself looked like a nice, engaging guy in a country club sort of way but the new setting didn't overcome the basic problem of such responses - it wasn't particularly responsive to what the president had just said.
There were cursory attempts at responsiveness but they looked like they had been added at the last minute. Mostly, it was just the usual recitation of conservative ideology. We need to help business - yes, Obama said that too - we need nuclear power - yes, Obama said that, too - we need less regulation. As for that point, Obama had been at his most forceful and persuasive in pointing out that the less-regulation idea was the very thing that had brought the country to ruin over the last 10 years. But the governor didn't respond to that challenge, he just repeated the worn-out idea.
As the perceptive David Brooks also observed, it was as if Gov. McDonnell was giving a counter argument to an argument that Obama had not made.
So I was left in the end not saying "arf, arf, arf" or clapping my flippers together.