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Common thread

Obama's mid-term message

Two years into the White House, Barack Obama finds himself quite at sea on a host of issues — from domestic economic woes to foreign policy failures. In 2008, he rode a wave and promised to end the culture of bipartisan politics that wracked America during the 8 Bush Jr. years. But today, America stands as polarised as ever and the Democrats have lost control of the house following damaging losses in the mid-term elections. So what’s the state of the American Union? That’s what Obama set out to address in his address to a joint sitting of the house and senate earlier this week. And his speech hit some high notes and repeated some old ones over again.

The Guardian’s Gary Younge termed Obama’s speech a success, commenting, “The state of the union speech has a specific and particular role in the American polity’s calendar. Masquerading as an event of political import, it is, in fact, a much-trailed setpiece of mediated theatre in which the entire political class pledges itself to eternal optimism: America’s endlessly renewable resource.

Somewhere in the speech, regardless of how much of a mess the country is in, the president will insist, to roaring applause from both sides of the aisle: “The state of the union is strong.” It is one occasion when the president is supposed to embody the resilience of national will over material fact. Within those parameters, Barack Obama’s state of the union address was a success. Depending on who was polling, between 83% and 90% of Americans said they approved. He took a clear stand on things he believes in, like gay soldiers serving openly in the military, a pathway to citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants and the future removal of tax cuts for the most wealthy. He also reached over the aisle, proposing a spending freeze on discretionary domestic spending and a desire to reduce the deficit.”

Writing in the Washington Post, conservative critic Charles Krauthammer, predictably, slammed the speech, writing, “No other conclusion can be drawn from a speech that didn’t even address the debt issue until 35 minutes in. And then what did he offer? A freeze on domestic discretionary spending that he himself admitted would affect a mere one-eighth of the budget. As for entitlements, which are where the real money is, Obama said practically nothing. He is happy to discuss, but if Republicans dare take anything from granny, he shall be Horatius at the bridge. He tried to cast this more-of-the-same into a call to national greatness, citing two Michigan brothers who produce solar shingles as a stirring example of rising to the Sputnik moment. “We do big things,” Obama declared at the end of an address that was, on the contrary, the finest example of small-ball Clintonian minimalism since the days of school uniforms and midnight basketball. From the moon landing to solar shingles. Is there a better example of American decline?”

The Ledger.com, in an editorial, commented, “President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday nigh acknowledged political change. In a bow to the elections that gave Republicans control of the U.S. House of Representatives, the president called for freezing discretionary spending and decreasing the annual budget deficit … He urged Congress to simplify the tax system, reduce the corporate rate without increasing the deficit and provide more incentives for business development…These ideas make sense and could, with adequate explanation, gain substantial public support. But it was apparent from the tepid response to these proposals, the budget-cutting suggestion in particular, that few members of Congress were enthusiastic. The body language of many Democrats indicated they thought such cuts — about 15 percent of the annual budget — would go too deep.”

NYT’s Katherine Q Seelye reported, “In his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Obama called for college campuses to “open their doors to our military recruiters” and the Reserve Officer Training Corps. This would have been an explosive statement with wide ramifications 40 years ago, at the height of the Vietnam War, but in today’s context, it is basically symbolic. The hostility between universities, many of them now dependent on federal funding, and the military, with the draft long over, is much diminished. Military recruiters have already been on most college campuses for years. And since Congress last month repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy that banned gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military, most of the elite universities with no R.O.T.C. programs have indicated that they are prepared to bring the military onto campus. But that is no guarantee that such programs will materialize.”

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Andrew Malcom highlighted the complexity of drafting such a speech: “Writing a major political speech like Tuesday’s Obama State of the Union Address is an extremely complex undertaking typically lasting weeks and involving contributions from dozens of people by the end of the prose assembly process when the elected official reads over a late draft and adds his or her own touches for spoken comfort. We are told that President Obama had a direct hand in crafting the 6,200 or so words... One final trick of good speechwriters is to make their written words sound like somebody else’s with the vocabulary, cadence and tone of the boss. That’s no easy task and one reason Obama’s top speechwriter is paid the $172,000 maximum for presidential aides.”

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