They like you to be seated pretty early in the House Gallery for State of the Union addresses. As a grizzled veteran of two — George W. Bush’s third and Barack Obama’s second, on Tuesday night — I can tell you some things don’t change.
Billed every year as a night of headline-making policies and sweeping vision, it is ultimately an exercise in posturing, preening and see-and-be-seen.
I don’t say that derisively. I have long abandoned the expectation of any real news being made at a State of the Union address, settling into the more fruitful exercise of absorbing it as political theater.
This is not unimportant. A State of the Union address is a president’s opportunity to find anything that might be going well, or not as badly, and suggest he is to thank for it. Then we get to see how the audience in the hall buys it, and whether voters do.
Only time will tell if America thinks the Obama administration is to thank for a slowly recovering economy, or if the public believes we are freer or stronger after two years of his stewardship.
But as congressional Republicans and Democrats paired off to sit together in a warm but ultimately empty gesture, the content of the president’s speech made clear the actual policy debates ahead that will send the parties to their respective corners, as it should be.
Obama is right when he says there are goals Americans have in common, among them a more vigorous job market, a more effective government and a cleaner planet. But his expressed methods of pursuing them offer a lesson on the differences between the liberal and conservative paths.
To his mind, jobs are created through huge new government spending on untested, maybe even unwanted, things — even if we don’t have the money.
Government is restrained by a spending freeze, which is like your crazy brother-in-law tapping your debit card for thousands of dollars each month for years, then promising to only rob you blind at that continuing level from here on out.
And the planet is cleaned not by consumers choosing earth-friendly products and services (which we have already shown a healthy inclination to do), but by government pouring millions into subsidizing green technologies before anyone even knows whether consumers will find them useful or cost-effective.
On health care, the president suggested he is open to “improvements” to his massive attempt to retool the whole system. Great. Most Republicans want nothing less than repeal of that beast, and they will not be deterred by lip service that speaks of minor fine-tuning.
A liberal speech from a liberal president is to be expected. I expect any chief executive to be a cheerleader for his worldview. But I can’t end this column without noting the silliest moment in the recent history of these addresses.
If Obama wants to argue that open homosexuality in the military will help us win wars, fine, he should do that. But he could not resist a stab at those who feel differently: “Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love.”
First of all, it’s “whom,” but to move to what’s important, this suggests that opposition to gays in military service is some ugly attempt to punish them for their orientation, rather than an honest assertion that the possibility of sexual attraction in the showers and barracks of a war zone might not be helpful.
Like most State of the Union speeches, this one will be largely forgotten soon. What will be remembered is what this Congress actually does. Where they sat to hear the address was irrelevant. What will matter — and what we will see soon, on issue after issue — is where they stand.
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