Obama, Punditry, and the State of the Union Address That Ensured a Second Term
The State of the Union address was a bit of a disappointment to the punditry. But of course, the President’s message wasn’t meant for them. There’s probably no better example of what I mean than the intertube reaction to this bit, which was really the capstone of the evening:
These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness, and teamwork of America’s Armed Forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.
Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example. Think about the America within our reach: A country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs. A future where we’re in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded…
One of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden. On it are each of their names. Some may be Democrats. Some may be Republicans. But that doesn’t matter. Just like it didn’t matter that day in the Situation Room, when I sat next to Bob Gates – a man who was George Bush’s defense secretary; and Hillary Clinton, a woman who ran against me for president.
All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves. One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn’t deserve credit for the mission. It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job – the pilot who landed the helicopter that spun out of control; the translator who kept others from entering the compound; the troops who separated the women and children from the fight; the SEALs who charged up the stairs. More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other – because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s someone behind you, watching your back.
So it is with America.
Most of the people on the intertubes today – at least those that were hoping for Obama to succeed – have voiced concerns about Obama’s use of this story due to it’s militaristic backdrop. Andrew Sullivan, staunch Obama supporter, was pretty unimpressed with the speech in general but with the above bit in particular:
This notion that a country, a democracy, should have the same attitude as troops fighting a war is preposterous and slightly creepy. Yes, we should put aside our differences to get important things done, put aside ideology to focus on solving problems. But we are not a military and the president is not our commander. He is our president. We have every right to argue with one another and to distrust one another at times. The whole idea of getting each others’ backs in a boisterous democracy is deeply undemocratic. I do not want to be a citizen trained like a member of the Navy SEALs. Nor should anyone. This isn’t Sparta. It’s America.
Our own Jason Kuznicki went a wee bit farther than that.
I know that I will be reviled for what I’m about to say, but to imagine that our economy and the rest of our society should be run just like the military is the very essence of fascism.
Don’t achieve your personal ambitions. Don’t try to be different from others. Conform. Work together. We can be great, but only — only — if we are regimented and disciplined like the military. I will lead you.
With all due respect to Jason, much of what he reads into the speech I believe he has brought to the table himself. I usually agree with him on these issues, but this seems a bit of a stretch. I can neither claim to have met Obama nor crawled inside of his head a la Being John Malkovich, but I’m pretty sure the intended takeaway wasn’t that it would be fabulous if the American people were replaced by the androids from I, Mudd.
In any case, I find that I disagree with Jason, Andrew and most everyone else this morning on the speech in general, but especially with the reactions to this particular bit of it. In fact, I’m pretty sure that against the current field of dream GOP candidates this locks up the second term – and for all the right reasons.
One of the tricks to being a good pundit is the ability to be clever. Being clever allows a pundit to put unique spins on the ordinary, and to describe things in ways that make them tasty and easily digestible. On the whole, this is a good thing. But part of the risk with being clever is that you have a tendency to over think things – (I do this a lot) – and when you over think things you sometimes find that even though you were sure you were almost to Vegas, you’re somehow just pulling into Amarillo. This is why Obama confuses so many pundits on the right and the left, despite the fact that there’s just not a lot of mystery there.
Part of being a clever pundit means that you’re always on the look out for “signals” – those Delphic, unspoken codes in political rhetoric that allow them to be the Oracles of the moment. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. This was certainly the case with Obama’s first presidential run. Conservative wonks, strapping themselves in for the drubbing they secretly knew they were going to get and fully deserved, worked round the clock to take every tiny thing Senator Obama said and use it to create a narrative that he was just slightly to the left of Stalin. Progressive pundits, after eight years of a president they truly loathed, did likewise from the other end. They parsed each speech for its “code” until they heard the secret platform they wanted to hear, and when Obama was swept into office they mistakenly assumed both a self-affirming platform and mandate that just didn’t exist.
Obama was voted into office not just by the usual Democrats and Independents – he was elected by huge waves of voters who had long ago given up on the system and no longer bothered to pull any lever in most elections. The reason he was so beloved wasn’t that McCain was a lousy candidate or that Bush was so unpopular. (Both were, and so any Dem might well have won – but not in the way Obama did.) Nor was it that they assumed the Change he would bring would be a more progressive state. No, the reason he was elected was that he delivered a message that we were one country, and that there was more that connected us than separated us. The Hope he offered the country was never a Fascist-Socialist/Liberal-Progressive (depending on your party affiliation) declaration; it was an acknowledgment that most people in this country don’t want to see everything through the Red State/Blue State filter the two parties push. That divisive narrative never existed to get everyone to the polls; it has always existed to get just enough of only the right kind of people to the polls.
Obama offered a different message and the country by and large believed him; because of that they rallied around him in a way that would have made Elvis jealous.
And now here we are, three years later. Progressives are frustrated with Obama because he constantly looks to reach across the aisle and find ways to compromise in order to get the business of the people done. Which, I hasten to point out, was exactly what he promised to do, and why he was elected. What progressive pundits were really hoping for, of course, was a liberal, handsome, minority version of Karl Rove – and now they mistakenly see it as a betrayal that the President refuses to be so. Conservatives are frustrated because all they seem to know how to do now is talk in platitudes and turn the governing of our nation into a talk radio sound bite, and are becoming less relevant each year because of it. Their response when ever anyone within their ranks notices that they are going backwards, of course, is to label that person a liberal RINO and excommunicate them, which only prolongs their slide. And as they slide, Obama is strengthened. There is no Jedi rope-a-dope in this; Obama is behaving the way he promised to behave, and the GOP the way they promised to behave. And Obama is sitting in the cat bird seat because of it, even though the economy still stinks.
All of which brings me back to that part of the President’s State of the Union Address – the part about the NAVY seals.
As Jason, Andrew and others political junkies listened to that, they heard militaristic jingoism – and, considering what we have been through over the past decade, I can’t say that I blame them for that. But in doing so, they are making the classic pundit error: they are over thinking. There is no secret code here, and the vast majority of American people won’t think so either. Instead, they’ll hear all of the various layered messages that this story is meant to hammer home:
* The person they elected is the same person that sits in the Oval Office. Their President is the man that values working in tandem with the opposition to tackle the difficult jobs. As they hear story this over the next several months (as I’m sure this will become a staple of Obama’s stump speeches) they will be able to contrast it with GOP Presidential candidates and a GOP-led House that looks to reflexively oppose the White House on any stance it takes on any issue, even conservative ones. (Note that the President in his speech gave a heads up to those listening that the GOP was going to favor a payroll tax hike soon, for no other reason than Obama was against it.)
* Hey, nation – remember how for the past three years every member in the GOP or pundit on FOX who had access to a camera or microphone was constantly telling you that Obama was soft on terrorism and would never, ever be able to kill Bin Laden – even though their own guy couldn’t do it over two terms? Remember that? And hey, do you remember how after years of talking about how they wanted him dead on sight, that once they heard that he was killed on Obama’s watch they suddenly declared killing him unseemly in a really, really transparently cynical way? You do? OK, just making sure.
* Nation, most of us don’t crave war, so you might want to ask yourself – when bad things happen to our country, might you want a calm, measured, well-thought out response when actual violence is called for? If so, I ask you to think about every detail that went into this operation of ours, and ask yourself if this is what you, Nation, envision that looking like. Oh, and by the way, did you see how those guys that want to replace me want to start another war with Iran and maybe even Cuba? You should totally YouTube it, it’s pretty funny.
* As we go into the future in these times that seem so disquieting and frightening, we need to have one another’s back. In order for us to see things through, we need to recognize that sometimes who we are as a people is more important than how much power and wealth we have as a political party. (My guess is that in every stump speech this story is told, people will be reminded of last summer’s debt ceiling fiasco – and rightfully so.)
These are the things Obamas’ speech writers want Americans to hear when they listen to this story, and this is exactly what most Americans will take away from it. Not the GOP base, of course, but the rest of the country. That part of us that doesn’t spend our time parsing away at every little thing a year away from an election. That part of the country that elected Obama with delight and exuberance. This speech was for them, not the pundits.
Of course, I may be over thinking this.