Last night, I had to attend a board meeting, a commitment that one would normally try to avoid. Instead, I celebrated the fact, because it allowed me to miss the live presentation of the State of the Union speech. Rather than watch it live or even on YouTube, I read the speech later from the transcript of its delivered version. Barack Obama’s address reminded me once again why the SOTU address is the most overrated and overblown event in politics outside of Ames, Iowa.
That’s not because Obama “present[ed] a powerful progressive agenda,” as David Corn wrote last night for Mother Jones. He certainly did that, but he’s done that every year he’s been in office. It would have been news if Obama hadn’t pushed his “unambiguous progressive agenda,” and had instead opted for supply-side economics and promises of reducing regulation and the size of federal government. That would have been the speech from a President Mitt Romney, and it would have been every bit as unsurprising, and likely would have suffered from the same problems that afflict all SOTU speeches.
No, the problem with this and nearly every SOTU is that it reads like Congress is Santa Claus, the President is the greedy kid, and all the rest of us are the elves in the workshop. Almost without exception for every President in memory, the SOTU is a dressed-up version of a campaign platform filled with “I wants” and “you’d better bring mes,” interrupted only by mindless applause and standing ovations for the most mundane of rhetoric. That didn’t start with Obama (we should only have been so lucky!) and it won’t end with him either. The result is a themeless, pointless, and unmemorable ramble through the arcane fighting points of the day, and no coherence whatsoever other than “gimme.”
My good friend Jon Henke said yesterday on Twitter that instead of calling this this State of the Union (SOTU), we should call it the Condition of My Agenda — COMA.
This Hobby Horse Parade led to some rather humorous incongruities and flat-out falsehoods, which I’ll address in another post. One incongruity deserves special mention, however. One of the headline takeaways from the speech was Obama’s demand that Congress raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour and then index it to CPI going forward. The last time we did this, it hammered employment for young workers, an outcome lost in the Great Recession that hit shortly afterward. In the very next breath, Obama talks about how jobs are disappearing and “young adults are still fighting for their first job.” Yes, when government intervenes to make entry-level jobs more costly, that’s what happens, and yet the SOTU construct stuck those two points in succession without Obama even bothering to connect those dots.
That’s what we get from a laundry list. It reminds us of the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson, who eschewed a live speech to Congress in favor of a written report on the actual status of the US and its federal government. In the age of television, we won’t get that kind of wisdom any longer, not with all of the pomp and circumstance offered a President in this event. But we can still appreciate that wisdom today, and lament its passing.