President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Non-State of the Union Address: Feel-Good Fantasy

–Richard E. Vatz

About President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Non-State of the Union Address, a few observations:

1. There are some certain verities which will last throughout the Obama presidency: this is one of the fine presidential speakers of the last 50 years, a list which includes, in order of appearance, presidents Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton, and now Obama. Of these presidents, Reagan and Obama tend — tend — not to generate hatred because they are perceived as sincere and non-devious.

2. President Obama had what could be understated as the most ambitious agenda ever forwarded in a State of the Union Address, which, at least officially, this was not: a stimulus package which will effect the United States’ rebuilding and recovering and our being “stronger than before.” By what mechanism is this going to be accomplished? Well, most of the specifics are not there, but as one prototypical example, President Obama promised to “end direct payments to large agribusinesses that don’t need them. We’ll eliminate the no-bid contracts that have wasted billions in Iraq.” There was no addressing reduction in the really tough entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Social Security. Vice President Joe Biden will personally provide oversight regarding earmarks and overspending. Great symbol; little effect.

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3. President Obama was equally nonspecific regarding what will be done about the housing crisis: Americans will be helped to avoid foreclosure. Who and how? He did not specify. The President stated in the major disjunction of the speech tonight: “…[W]e have launched a housing plan that will help responsible families facing the threat of foreclosure lower their monthly payments and re-finance their mortgages. It’s a plan that won’t help speculators or that neighbor down the street who bought a house he could never hope to afford, but it will help millions of Americans who are struggling with declining home values – Americans who will now be able to take advantage of the lower interest rates that this plan has already helped bring about. In fact, the average family who re-finances today can save nearly $2000 per year on their mortgage.” Again, who will and who will not be subsidized? You and I don’t know.

4. The speech was filled with confidence boosters which will likely raise the stock market – for a very short time. The problem with rousing, confidence-building presidential speeches, as Richard Nixon discovered in the 1970s, is that they serve as a stimulating drug which has diminishing returns with each speech. Add that President Obama is certifiably charismatic, and you may assume his speechmaking elixir will have a slightly longer half-life.

President Obama said “none of this will come without cost,” and this observer, who likes the President personally, predicts that none of this will come without credibility being the first casualty. Too many promises with too much expectation. Energy independence, universal health care, more federal aid to education? The deficit will be cut in half in the first 4 years of this presidency at the same time we are enacting a trillion dollar stimulus package? President Obama channels President Lincoln, but it may be better to channel lessons from a failed president who promised too much too soon without producing it: Lyndon Baines Johnson.

So far public opinion polls show a great patience among the American people for a well-intended but over-promising president. This, too, shall pass.

Richard E. Vatz is professor of political rhetoric at Towson University

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