President Barack Obama’s State of the Union: “Can We All Get Along? Comity Tonight”

–Richard E. Vatz

States of the Union (SOU) speeches may be historically “little noted nor long remembered,” but the theme of last night’s SOU will stay with us as emblematic of the rhetoric of President Barack Obama.

The speech could be titled with apologies to Rodney King “Can We All Get Along,” or perhaps, if you will forgive the pun on the signature song from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, “Comity Tonight.”

Spurred by the horrible but irrelevant violence in Tucson, the SOU was filled with substance and symbolism designed at least nominally to promote a more cooperative polity. Congressional “dates” provided couplings of Senators and Representatives sitting together who normally by tradition, not rule, sit apart. There were tributes in both the SOU and Republican response to the victims of the apolitical Tucson attack.

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The speech itself followed the Zeitgeist: the president, although somewhat lacking in specifics, pushed for his agenda while coupling each initiative with a concession to the Republicans: he wants to keep Obamacare largely intact, but does not oppose tweaking it to “improve the law by making care better or more affordable.” The president specified that Congress could correct the law’s “flaw” of including an “unnecessary bookkeeping burden on small business.” If a bill with earmarks comes to the President, he will “veto it,” he twice insisted.

Perhaps the most unexpected concession was the President’s willingness to entertain measures to enact “medical malpractice reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits” to improve healthcare reform. The lack of such engagement in health care reform has been a major objection of conservatives.

The President celebrated the end of “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell,” but urged all colleges and universities to open their doors to “military recruiters and ROTC.”

The President’s SOU audience was more accommodating as well, with no “You Lie” shout-outs and no boos.

But with some acknowledgement that there were more concessions — some just rhetorical — in this speech, on the major issues facing the country there was insufficient courage. There was no major, serious, well-defined initiative to stanch the growing deficit or national debt. At $1 trillion a year and $14 trillion respectively, the President’s gentle suggestion to freeze domestic spending for 5 years to save $400 billion over the next decade implies a lack of conviction.

The general avoidance of the seminal foreign policy problems and possible catastrophes facing the country — Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, the emergence of North Korea as a nuclear power, the Middle East’s continued turmoil, including Lebanon’s new governmental transformation — was manifest by some vaguely optimistic generalizations that we are
“insist[ing] that Iran meet its obligations” and that the United States is similarly “insist[ing]” that North Korea “keep its commitment to abandon nuclear weapons.”

Kicking the can on foreign policy continues for a president who at least included the topic in the SOU, but seems relatively little interested in such key matters.

The Republican and Tea Party responses (Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann respectively) — implicitly mutually supportive — focused on this and unambiguously attacked feckless but self-destructive presidential stimulus plans in general and the health care legislation in particular.

Can we all get along? Maybe, but only at the State of the Union if we avoid a direct confrontation of the budgetary and foreign crises that await the country.

Professor Vatz teaches Political Rhetoric at Towson University

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