First he wasn’t angry enough. Now someone has apparently decided that President Obama needs to be more likable. When speaking of shrinking government: “Then there’s my favorite example: The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater. (Laughter.) I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.” Maybe the genial façade was there to soften the inevitable disappointment that the President’s liberal base felt after this year’s State of the Union.
My own disappointment was to be expected. I cannot recall one State of the Union speech in the modern era worth remembering. I was surprised, however, by the negative reaction of those sitting around me in Parina Lounge. One friend was especially frustrated by the exclusion of recent developments in Egypt in the President’s blessings of the Tunisian uprising. The student understood the diplomatic wisdom behind the omission, but as has been the case for the last two years, remained convinced this administration was built for better things. Ever since the revelation that was the 2004 Convention speech, and the quite perfection of his speech on race, the left has been waiting for the moment when Barack Obama elevates his game on the biggest stage. The sad truth is that no speech written, vetted and ripped apart by a division of ambitious eyes eager to have their fingers stained with the fresh ink of history, can rise above the superficial setting of the annual message. For once in his life, Chief Justice Roberts was in the right when he called the event a glorified pep rally.
Perhaps the events in Tucson forced the West Wing speechwriters to produce a milder tone to match the bipartisan fad sweeping through the halls of power, complete with matching ribbons and grade-school style seating. Besides the president’s firm (but good natured) defense of health care, this was a speech to seize the mythic middle position in American politics. Behind the bluster of our supposed “Sputnik” moment, with its lollipop dreams of high-speed trains and schools that work, was the tough meat of austerity, freezes, and sacrifice. Five years of no increases in discretionary spending will be touted as the coup de grace of the administration’s new battle plan. Like Clinton before him, Obama destroys the opposition by stealing their best ideas right from under them. The Republicans will hem and haw, pretending to be upset by this blatant act of plagiarism. This is how Liberalism in America dies, not with a shout, but with a whimper. Just weeks after the absolute absurdity of this nation’s gun policy was reflected in the blood of statesmen and children, Tort Reform is this president’s idea of “winning the future.” This President will concede the war of ideas, confident that we are, and shall remain, a center-right nation.
Despite all the labored laughter, insufferable commentary, and the never ending procession of obligatory ovations, I did find one moment of real power within this speech. The shout-out, pioneered by none other than Ronald Reagan, included a woman from North Carolina named Kathy Procter. As the President sung her praises, cameras zoomed in on what was supposed to be a moment of quiet humility. Instead, the nation watched as Ms. Procter turned to the people around her, telling them “that’s me” as the most powerful man on earth quoted her words upon the alter of liberal democracy. That image — a woman bursting with a mixture of pride and disbelief at where she was and who was talking about her — will be what I keep from the 2011 State of the Union. One moment of truth, of honesty, in two hours did more than all the President’s platitudes to make me believe that “our journey goes forward.” As long as the Kathy Procters can propel their wisdom into the stratospheric heights of political decision-making, than the cause of eternally unsatisfied progress cannot die in America.
Nick White is a sophomore history major.
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