The State Of Our Union Is Long

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Esquire

The State Of Our Union Is Long

Here are two takeaways from the most Clintonian speech Barack Obama ever gave.

1) When all the cheering for Cory Remsburg, the grievously wounded Army Ranger, died down didn't you stop for a moment and think, "Damn, 10 deployments." What the hell have we been doing there?

2) The whole chamber couldn't rise as one and cheer the notion that people shouldn't have to raise their families in poverty? That got him about half the hall, from the way it looked on TV. I know that a good portion of his political opposition believes that poor people are marked by god and their own insufficiencies of character to be poor, but at least couldn't they all have pretended that at least the notion of poverty was something we universally deplore?

Once again, he was the only obvious president in the room, much good may that do him. He did not rile up the base. He was not combative. He did not dwell on issues that his base wanted to hear. (If you had "Keystone XL," or "NSA," or "TPP" in your State of the Union drinking game, you probably wound up as the designated driver.) But he was firm on one thing. He is not going to be a lame duck as long as he can still walk. There were a lot of sentences that began with some variation of, "If Congress won't act..." And he can still throw a sneaky right hand over the top.

Now, I do not expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law. But I know that the American people are not interested in refighting old battles. So again, if you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, increase choice, tell America what you'd do differently. Let's see if the numbers add up. But let's not have another 40- something votes to repeal a law that's already helping millions of Americans like Amanda.    

This promise to use the powers of his office is what likely is going to raise all those hackles that were going to be raised in any case unless he got up there and abdicated in favor of Mitt Romney but, really, he couched these assertions in the mildest fashion, making of himself just a guy who was just trying to do the job to which he had been elected. He would like to have done it a different way but, darned it the regular way just didn't work, and now it's time to take out the tire iron and give the old machine a good bash. There wasn't a scintilla of anger in his voice all night. There was just a rueful tone to it, as though he had finally gotten the joke that history had played on him with the election in 2010 of the opera boufee that is our current House of Representatives.

The speech was Clintonian in three basic ways. First, and most obviously, it was long, almost 7000 words, and he delivered it very, very carefully. (John Boehner's face seemed to darken as the evening went along, like the side of a mountain that faces the sunset.) Secondly, it made a conscious, and largely successful, effort to argue policy positions from anecdote. The opening passage was a list of his administration's accomplishments folded into what appeared to be parable form:

Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, my fellow Americans, today in America, a teacher spent extra time with a student who needed it and did her part to lift America's graduation rate to its highest levels in more than three decades. An entrepreneur flipped on the lights in her tech startup and did her part to add to the more than 8 million new jobs our businesses have created over the past four years. (Applause.)An entrepreneur flipped on the lights in her tech startup and did her part to add to the more than 8 million new jobs our businesses have created over the past four years. An autoworker fine-tuned some of the best, most fuel-efficient cars in the world and did his part to help America wean itself off foreign oil. A farmer prepared for the spring after the strongest five-year stretch of farm exports in our history.A rural doctor gave a young child the first prescription to treat asthma that his mother could afford. (Applause.) A man took the bus home from the graveyard shift, bone-tired but dreaming big dreams for his son. And in tight-knit communities all across America, fathers and mothers will tuck in their kids, put an arm around their spouse, remember fallen comrades and give thanks for being home from a war that after twelve long years is finally coming to an end.

And all of them still live in a place called Hope.

And finally, and most important, the speech was undeniably partisan while remaining conciliatory. This is a wire-walk of which Bill Clinton was the master, and this president has learned to stay up there pretty deftly himself. For every dark caution about what he'd do if they didn't, he pitched to Congress the idea that they all ought to get together and do something because the country was getting pretty pissed at all of them. He even pitched Boehner, whose balls are buried in a Mason jar somewhere in a spot only Eric Cantor knows, and who, I suspect, would like to leave a legacy behind as Speaker that consists of something more than keeping the likes of Louie Gohmert -- and Twitter's new star bullgoose Texas loony, Randy Weber -- in four-point restraints, a  lovely little lifeline while doing so.

The point is, there are millions of Americans outside Washington who are tired of stale political arguments and are moving this country forward. They believe, and I believe, that here in America, our success should depend not on accident of birth but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams. That's what drew our forebears here. It's how the daughter of a factory worker is CEO of America's largest automaker. How the son of a barkeeper is speaker of the House. How the son of a single mom can be president of the greatest nation on Earth.

He was extraordinarily strong in spots, particularly on voting rights, where he plainly had a lot to say, and said it all, and on the process of getting the country off what he rather daringly described as the "permanent war footing" it had been on since 2001. Some of the economic ideas, particularly the expansion and strengthening of the Earned Income Tax Credit, were sound and worthy of immediate action, which they won't get. I'm still a little vague on the MyRA thing, which smacked a little bit of the gimmick, and which, in any case, is just another stop-gap by which the country can forget that, once, everybody had a guaranteed pension, before the unions broke down and the sharpers on Wall Street looted what was left.

But, if this speech burned no barns, it didn't sound anything like a last chance, either. The president seemed to have a pen and one hand, and that well-worn olive branch still in the other. He is what he always has been, the coolest head in the room. You can never say he isn't that.

Charles P. Pierce

Charles P. Pierce is a writer-at-large for Esquire and his work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the LA Times Magazine, the Nation, the Atlantic, Sports Illustrated and The Chicago Tribune, among others.

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