Barack Obama's 2011 State of the Union address was an organized sprawl of good intentions-a mostly fact-free summons to a new era of striving and achievement, and a solemn cheer to raise our spirits as we try to get there. And it did not fail to celebrate the American Dream.
In short, it resembled most State of the Union addresses since Ronald Reagan's first in 1982. Perhaps its most notable feature was an omission. With applause lines given to shunning the very idea of government spending, and a gratuitous promise to extend a freeze on domestic spending from three years to five, there was only the briefest mention of the American war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The situation in each country was summarized and dismissed in three sentences, and the sentences took misleading care to name only enemies with familiar names: the Taliban, al-Qaeda. But these wars, too, cost money, and as surely as the lost jobs in de-industrialized cities they carry a cost in human suffering.
The president also omitted to mention gun control: a reform that has been in the minds of most Americans since the Tucson killings. He had elected not to mention gun control in his speech in Tucson, either. Two traits we may now judge to be conspicuous in this president, in fair weather and foul, no matter what the pressure of the occasion. He rarely explains complex matters with a complexity equal to the subject matter; and he hates to be a bearer of bad news. The appreciative words he lavished on the big corporations in November, December, and January, and his appointment of William Daley of Morgan Chase as chief of staff and Jeffrey Immelt of General Electric as chairman of his White House jobs council, also indicate a larger personal tendency. When things are not going his way, Barack Obama tacks the other way farther and faster than most people would. In the process, he speaks words which sound like statements of newfound principles, for which he will not be answerable when the winds shift again.
At a surprising number of his public appearances, Obama has presented himself as something other than the chief executive of a republic. In Tucson, he spoke to a packed auditorium as a grief counselor, with the heart, purpose, and uplift familiar to the role. He began his State of the Union speech by recalling that occasion and the apparent return of national fellow-feeling it aroused. "Each of us is a part of something greater-something more consequential than party or political preference. We are part of the American family." This metaphor, the nation-as-family, was deployed by Mario Cuomo in his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention of 1984: the greatest speech by a Democrat of the past 30 years.
But the idea of a political entity as a family has limits enforced by suitability. It is something more properly said by a politician affirming the value of the welfare state, as Cuomo did in 1984, than by a national leader pledged to be open-minded about cuts in entitlements.
The 2011 State of the Union was Obama's first rhetorical step to seal his new reputation as an anti-government Democrat. It has been said that, facing a determined and hostile Congress, Obama had no choice but to placate and again extol the virtues of bipartisanship. Certainly this was not a moment when he could pretend to speak for liberal reforms. What is surprising is the warmth with which he has embraced the premises of his opponents: in matters affecting public life and the economy, government is now said to be the problem, and private enterprise the solution; and far from deregulation having been a major cause of the financial collapse, the way to a healthy economy now lies through further deregulation. This rhetorical concession, adopted as a tactic, will turn against Obama as a strategy. The enormous budget cuts, for example, which he volunteered to make yet steeper will work against the ventures in job-creation which he has asked for without giving particulars.
Every advance that he makes on these lines as a gain to himself is a loss to his party. For without the idea that government is the heart of constitutional democracy and not a useless appendage, there is nothing much for Democrats to be; just as, without the idea that big business is the preserver of the American Dream and taxation is the enemy, there is nothing for Republicans to be. By offering himself as the rational corporate alternative to the Tea Party, Obama is taking a tremendous gamble, but with his party's fortunes more than his own. If the 2012 election were held tomorrow, both houses of Congress would pass into Republican hands and Obama would stay on as president. Not a word of his State of the Union address was calculated to alter that asymmetry.
Obama now speaks in strings of sentences like these: "The stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again." The stock market, it would seem, plus corporate profits equals the economy: an odd equation to hear from a Democrat. Bill Clinton in 1995 is Obama's only precursor on this terrain, but even Clinton would quickly have added that corporate profits are not the measure of all good. By contrast, Obama is now convinced that there is no advantage in putting in qualifications except as a formality. He did acknowledge that "we have never measured progress by these yardsticks alone" and that the "success of our people" depends on "the jobs they can find and the quality of life these jobs offer." But he declined to offer a government commitment to helping the jobless, or underemployed, apart from tax cuts for working Americans.
Again, he did ask that the Bush tax cuts for the rich be allowed to expire in 2012. But it was President Obama who pushed his party to surrender their expiration at the end of 2010; in 2012, with the demands of an election close, how many Democrats will take the risk Obama himself feared to take in 2010? On immigration, another issue of the mid-term election in which Obama's liberal position was unpopular, he has gently instructed Congress to conduct a polite debate and try to be decent to honest and hard-working immigrants. He did say children of immigrants, including illegals, hard-working or not, should have equal access to education without "the threat of deportation." And he suggested that foreigners who came here to get advanced degrees should be allowed to stay. But he made no mention of the Dream Act, or any specific policy that would achieve such goals.
What is hard to take in at a glance is the extent of the change in the political description Obama has dedicated himself to earning over the next two years. All his general pledges now bear the stamp of the corporate ideology. This ideology assumes that the energy, initiative, and technical knowhow that contribute to our society the objects and experiences most valued by Americans originate in the private sector and are generally stunted, impaired, adulterated, or degraded by public supervision. The favor shown to charter schools by the president and his secretary of education Arne Duncan, in their endorsement of the testing regime of Race to the Top, draws on that ideology without much skepticism; and as Diane Ravitch has shown, it has encouraged a broad disdain for the supposed lack of "results" in public education that is not supported by facts.
Obama's model for sentiment, far more than Clinton, has now become Ronald Reagan. His manner in his first two years was burdensome, grave and oratorical; but in town halls and talk shows, he was experimenting with a different style; this was given a formal trial in Tucson and it became official in the State of the Union. Obama has copied the manners, the speech inflections, the kinetic rise and fall of the voice of TV talk show hosts, with as much application as Reagan brought to the study of 1930s radio announcers and the faces of the talkie stars who came before him. But there is a dimension beyond style in the choice of Reagan as a model for tone and surface. As Reagan, to clinch the Republican hold on the South, made common cause with racists--a step his predecessors had refused to take-so Obama, to move Wall Street reliably into the Democratic column, will be tempted to weaken or destroy unions, to dissociate himself from peace activists and defenders of civil liberties, and to lose what he can afford to lose of the base that brought him to power. (There were hints of this as early as August, in Robert Gibbs's comment that Obama's left-wing critics "ought to be drug tested.")
Like Reagan, Obama now cultivates a style of deliberate platitude. "Sustaining the American Dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age." There are times when the strenuous blandness passes finally into a vacuity of non-meaning: "We can't win the future with a government of the past." What is a government of the past? And what could it mean to win the future?
Obama wants to win, but he would also like nobody to lose, and he has coined some words to express his difference from the more agonistic proponents of American supremacy. We can, he said in his State of the Union, "out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world." How will we do that? By "free enterprise" in the private sector and by cuts-"taking responsibility for our deficit"-in government. "My administration will develop a proposal to merge, consolidate, and reorganize the federal government in a way that best serves the goal of a more competitive America." Such a vow to move things around goes easily with promises that supply in grandeur what they lack in proximity: "By 2035, 80 percent of America's electricity will come from clean energy sources." All the producers and all the consumers can be happy together: "Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all." All those folks, and all their energies. But at what time, in what place, was the central problem of nuclear energy solved: where to dump the radioactive waste that is lethal for thousands of years?
A main inference from the State of the Union is that in 2011 and 2012, the president will not initiate. He will broker. Every policy recommendation will be supported and, so far as possible, clinched by the testimony of a panel of experts. There were signs of this pattern in the group of former secretaries of state, including Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell, whom the president brought in to endorse the START nuclear pact; in the generals who were called on to solidify support for the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell; and in Bill Clinton holding a presidential press briefing on the economy. Obama, on such occasions, serves as host and introducer; he leaves the podium to the experts. The idea is to overwhelm us with expertise. In this way, a president may lighten the burden of decision and control by easing the job of persuasion into other hands. Obama seems to believe that the result of being seen in that attitude will do nothing but good for his stature.
What sort of occasions, then, will keep him in public view? Town hall meetings. Talk shows. One-on-one interviews with unthreatening reporters such as John Harwood and Katie Couric. Though Obama is said to resent journalists, he has been able to rely on the mainstream media as a partner throughout his career. The corporate sponsors will stand behind the presenters now more plainly than before. He is hoping, with this kind of backing, to offer an educational answer to the superstitions and anxieties of the Tea Party: above all, their apprehension that they are losing "the America we grew up in." It remains a disturbing evasion in his presidency that Obama has hardly recognized the Tea Party's existence, and has never attempted to answer its members--not even where they are most deeply and harmfully mistaken, as in the belief they have taken up that global warming is a "hoax." He prefers to keep the political contest a face-off between his own abstract legitimacy and a nameless and inscrutable heterodoxy.
There was one moment in this speech that should have startled every listener; except that, coming from Barack Obama, the aberration may have appeared normal. In 2010, he persuaded a Democratic congress to pass a health care law that is now accounted by many to be his largest single achievement. Obama has praised himself in no uncertain terms for the exertions he made to get the legislation passed. That the law is still in peril is largely owing to his wrong supposition that, once the measure was passed, the argument was over. Obama left the law to speak for itself. He underestimated the complexity of the process of legitimation and the work of patient explanation that would be required of him. The astounding detail of his State of the Union speech was therefore Obama's announcement that the health care law is again negotiable. While he cannot imagine allowing insurance companies to deny coverage because of a pre-existing condition, he would, he said, accept any changes that seem good to him. He was choosing to treat a law that is now on the books as a mere statement of preference.
Where all is so pliable before, during, and after the passage of a law, what need have we of laws themselves? But here it was: in the same way that he offered a five-year domestic spending freeze without any immediate pressure to do so, Obama welcomed an indefinite revision of health care before being shown a single amendment. "Let me be the first to say that anything can be improved. If you have ideas about how to improve this law by making care better or more affordable, I am eager to work with you."
All laws are subject to modification, of course, but this is the first time in memory that a president has put his own law on the auction block and said he was ready to bargain it down. The obvious conclusion is forced on us. Barack Obama, starting in 2002-the year he declared at a Chicago rally his opposition to the coming war against Iraq-had a keen eye on his political rise, but he had slender experience and a narrow focus disguised by inspirational special effects. In earlier years, he was protected by the Chicago Democratic machine; after 2004, he was shepherded by leaders of the Democratic party who disliked the Clintons or feared that Hillary Clinton could never win a presidential election. His apparent convictions--on the environment, on the Middle East, on nuclear proliferation: matters of more concern to him than health care-were resonant and sincere but they had never been brought to a test. It turned out that few of his convictions were as strong as Obama thought they were.
"We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America," said Barack Obama shortly before the 2008 election. "I am absolutely certain," he had said in St. Paul when he clinched the Democratic nomination, "that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth."
In retrospect, that messianic fervor is shocking. Today no one can easily say who Barack Obama is or what he stands for; and the coming year is unlikely to offer many clues, since all the thoughts of Obama in 2011 appear to concern Obama in 2012. The best one can do is to point out that the words of his State of the Union address seem uttered by a different person and spoken in another language: "We're the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook. In America, innovation doesn't just change our lives. It is how we make our living. (Applause.)"
© 2011 The New York Review of Books