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The Stasis of the Union --One Last Take

Philip Kraske

Pundits have summed up the latest State of the Union speech as a rousing call to action short on detail, and I suppose they're right, though I am always puzzled that people expect any more than histrionics from these speeches. With Congress and the Supreme Court huddled around the commander-in-chief, they are more show than tell. And that consummate showman, Barack Obama, like the daily dose of  Oprah or Letterman, stirs not thought, but passion. You get your laughs from Letterman and your rouse from Obama.

Obama turned out the usual suspects. He sprinkled the holy water of patriotism equally over foolish foreign interventions and "the working class kid from Scranton." Every problem was a "challenge" and every reform "meaningful." Playing fields were to be bulldozed -- or bombed -- level. Loopholes, those sine qua non of the smoke-filled room, would finally be boarded up. Lobbyists, always skulking past in "parades," took their usual shellacking, which was really unfair. Who paid for all those loopholes and playing fields, anyway?

Then there was the de rigeur snarl at "enemies": "We will defeat you!" Funny word, "enemies." It swipes so deftly with that big rolling-pin of fear -- at the home crowd, though, not the Taliban, who probably just laugh, since they're winning.

Obama doesn't need to employ fear. Here in Spain, home to what was till just recently the most active terrorist cell in the world, the Basque terrorists ETA, the government talks about "the terrorist band," but never "the enemy." The government's very salutary idea has always been to impart not fear, but confidence that law, democracy, and the Constitution would prevail -- as indeed they have.

But Obama, who knows which side of the bread holds the guns and butter, plays the fear card as shamelessly as Bush and Reagan before him. No matter that Al Qaeda is a clammy little junkyard compared with Soviet Communism -- or even ETA. The point is to justify war and a fat defense budget. So fear is part of the lullaby.

Yes, lullaby. Just as part of Letterman's or Oprah's attraction is its folksy predictableness, so Obama lulls us to sleep. Reality makes only cameo appearances -- the national debt, the dodgy infrastructure -- mainly to brace up the malarkey.

Take this classic example: "That's what Americans have done for over two hundred years: reinvented ourselves."

Nonsense -- reinvention is about Angelina's new makeover or the latest fad diet. Search the length and breadth of American history, and the only reinvention you see, a real grassroots effort, is the struggle for civil rights, the righting of the original sin of slavery. 

Beyond that, like every other western country living in the same age, America has undergone an evolution in morals, living standards, ways of work, education, or pursuit of the opposite sex (or the same). These are the predictable result of technological change, the prerogatives of capitalism, more money in the pocket and, since Glass-Steagall went out the window, keener greed at the bank's loan window.

Reinvention in America is really a more modest matter: men leaving their wives for younger women, and poverty-stricken kids sleeping through English class because, bereft of a social-welfare net, they've worked the 4-to-12 shift at Burger King.

Actually, if there is a single most worrisome feature of public life today -- a real violin squeal moving right up the G-string -- it is America's inability to reinvent itself, reform itself, or just make a modest change in direction. Our tiller is lashed.

Look at how little has been done to avoid another financial meltdown. As Gretchen Mortgenson, the New York Times excellent business columnist writes of the just-released Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission report, "The report....makes for compelling reading because so little has changed as a result of the debacle, in both banking and in its regulation." It's no coincidence that the day after Dodd-Frank passed, bank stocks rose. 

Look at President Obama continue Bush's curbs on habeas corpus and the expansion of warrantless wiretapping that as senator he opposed. Some "change we can believe in."

Look at what the Pentagon is doing, opening base after base abroad -- now estimated at 1,100 -- and taking over the reins of foreign policy. "The Secretary of Defense has also agreed," said the president, "to cut tens of billions of dollars in spending that he and his generals believe our military can do without." Which is like allowing the fox to choose what he can do without in the henhouse, like all that straw and all those feathers lying around.

All told, President Obama's speech is the standard company line - a strong, forward-looking, flexible America, agile as a kid. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that the speechwriter swiped half the text from Truman's or Kennedy's speech. Hope blazes like crazy: more economic growth, lower corporate taxes, more technology and Internet access will save the day.  Congress applauds, the public swoons from the poetry, and the kindest thing you can say about Obama is that he is simply yet another weak president unable to tame the Pentagon, the corporations, and the financial barons.

You have to wonder how much of this he knew before winning election -- and how much he was quietly told in the Oval Office.

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Philip Kraske is an American novelist living in Spain. You can see more of his writing on his website,

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