A Naive Interpretation of Obama's State of the Union


At first, I resolved to watch the State of the Union address, but then I didn't have time, so I promised myself I would watch it later. When later came, I sat down to play it on YouTube, and things started fine, but then I realized that most of the hour-long speech was taken by standing ovations. I then gave up on the shenanigans and looked for the transcript. Besides, watching other people looking bored makes me bored too.

The whole speech comes in at a little under 7,000 words, but the occasion is so ceremonial, and the words so loaded with import, that most of the blogosphere will become professors of literature for about forty-eight hours as they sift through sentences, tone, policies, pauses, and gestures. Many will try to extract some “meaning” from the speech, and no doubt this is the democratically responsible thing to do, but what does it say about our politics when the meaning of a speech – when the state of our union – must be parsed by a horde of amateur literary critics? Why do our leaders have to address us with the most banal language in order to conceal a bevy of innuendos, arguments, and proposals?

To counter this trend, I suggest looking at the speech as one might do in a simpler time, and by treating it with a naïve and simpleminded directness.

Here's what I got: America's economy is no good anymore. Sure, there was a lot of rhetoric about competitiveness and some cheerleady optimism about where we're going and what we can do, but in a nutshell, the speech could have been titled: China is about to eat us for lunch. I'm not being critical of Obama here; you have to make your case in simple terms, and maybe he has a plan. Who knows?

What I am saying though is that this speech could be understood as a profound expression of anxiety and restlessness. The speech was riddled with uncertainty and – excuse me while I temporarily ignore my own advice and play amateur psychoanalyst – existential angst. What is America and what are we doing? We don't have an answer for our national purpose.

Don't believe this baroque interpretation? Look at Obama's words. He said, “Just as jobs and businesses can now race across borders, so can new threats and new challenges. No single wall separates East and West; no one rival superpower is aligned against us.” Also, recall Obama's fond recollection of the space race. With these comments, one can almost hear Obama asking imploringly, “What are we supposed to do without a rival superpower against which to measure our every action?” Lastly, think of all the times Obama said, of our policies, that they make “no sense.” I think that phrase most succinctly captures my point about this speech, that it reflects our national feeling of confusion.

And then there were the policy proposals and calls for political bipartisanship, the latter being unobjectionable but completely ineffectual bromides and the former being scant and sometimes bizarrely irrelevant. Here were the policy proposals I heard, in order.

First, Obama suggested that we make Race to the Top – an education program – a priority. Nothing weird there, but then he started talking about the economy and mentioned oil subsidies. Really? There's not a chance in hell those subsidies are going away and they don't really have much to do with the economy anyway. Then he stopped to mention immigration, but then went on, sensibly, to infrastructure. Again, the theme here was that other countries are doing it better. He didn't linger though. Next was closing tax loopholes and then came medical malpractice reform to lower healthcare costs. What? Medical malpractice reform has almost no effect on healthcare costs because they're infinitesimal compared to things like technology costs and insurance premiums. Another non sequitur.

Toward the end, he did hold out an olive branch by requesting that ROTC be welcomed back to campuses across America. That led in nicely to his talk about bipartisanship, which was mostly fleshed out with a hilarious series of reminders that America does “big things.”

All told, I'm happy I read the speech, and I confess that I'm interested in the commentary, but I can't help but thinking, what if the lessons aren't that deep? What if things are exactly as Obama said: we're trying our best to adapt to global change and our old ways of doings things won't cut it anymore.

Photo CreditMedill DC