Obama gives a conventional speech at a time of extraordinary stalemate

Posted Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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WASHINGTON -- The president's State of the Union address was more than 6,000 words, but its message to voters could fit inside a single tweet: I am full of ideas that will directly affect your life, but these people in the audience are blocking them.

The president brought a ton of proposals on Tuesday night: universal preschool, tax reform, immigration reform, a minimum wage increase, a cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions, infrastructure investments, new housing incentives, manufacturing incentives, energy plans, a program for scoring college education by affordability and paycheck equity.

They all seemed to have ready-made hashtags: manufacturinghub, fixitfirst, and collegescorecard.

There was no moon shot or a plan for overhauling Social Security, but in the aggregate it was a lot, especially in the current environment where the Senate can't pass a budget, House conservatives are ready to burn the ships and Barack Obama and John Boehner openly question the other's toughness.

How is the president going to get any of that done? Through creating outside pressure, his aides say. The State of the Union is a tough vehicle. The Constitution requires that the president report on the health of the nation, but the address is really an ensemble performance in which he and the audience act out the reasons it's so hard to get anything done.

To illustrate mindless partisanship, members of each party clapped or didn't clap for different lines and phrases. Together they applauded only the most harmless notions like patriotism and the first lady. The president offered repeated rhetorical pitches that seemed utterly disconnected from reality. "We can get this done," Obama said several times, as if all the old partisan arguments would melt away in the face of his new assurance. It's not going to happen.

If only a president could break through the encrusted pageant and deliver one true thing. But apparently the Constitution has another rule: Don't do anything risky or interesting with the form. By not breaking through the format of the speech, the president reminds us how hard it is to break through the constraints that restrict governing.

That puts into perspective the president's larger gambit of trying to sell these plans he unveiled to the country. Can he deliver a message through the clot of partisanship, mistrust, sclerosis and fatigue that will actually motivate people?

The president built his speech around using government to create "a rising, thriving middle class," which he said will help shrink the budget deficit through creating economic growth. That growth will come through investment from the programs he was suggesting. He had a suggestion for every stage of life from nearly cradle to grave, starting with universal preschool, secondary education and college assistance all the way through the earning years to retirement when retirees will need a retooled Medicare. The president was offering a precision list in a time of blunt budget math. The "sequester," the across-the-board budget cuts, are coming in two weeks. President Obama and the Republicans don't look much closer to finding a solution to at least making the cuts smarter. This is the seemingly insurmountable obstacle standing between Obama's vision of investment-led growth and a drastic dose of austerity.

The president ended his speech on a powerful note, telling the stories of the heroes and victims of gun violence. "They deserve a vote," he said of legislation aimed at limiting the mayhem. "Gabby Giffords deserves a vote!" "The families of Newtown deserve a vote!" "The families of Aurora deserve a vote!"

The crowd joined the call, responding to the mix of loss and bravery. It was the kind of swell of emotion that could lead to change after years of resistance. After nearly an hour of the traditional fare, it was like an entirely different speech. Too bad he felt like he needed the other 5,500 words.

Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent.

Twitter: @jdickerson

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