You Know What America Really Needs Right Now? A Better State of the Union Address


To-ga! To-ga! To-ga!

It's not even Festivus yet (except in participating Orange County jails), and already we're getting pundittastic cures for what ails the body politic: A better Barack Obama State of the Union address!

David Brooks, New York Times:

Obama's challenge in the State of the Union address is to give voice to the inchoate longing for change, and to chart a political path through the Washington minefield so that voters and bond markets have the sense that the country is at least beginning to grapple with its problems.

William Galston, New Republic:

[T]he time is ripe—from both a policy and a political standpoint—to shift toward a comprehensive program of fiscal stabilization and economic growth, integrated into a narrative of American success in the twenty-first century. He should do so during next year's State of the Union address, which, if used correctly, may well be the pivotal speech of the Obama presidency.

As is typically the case in "narrative" narratives, the concrete policy details, these are not so important.


the president doesn't have to go out on a limb and embrace specific (and politically suicidal) hard choices.


[Medicare] is not a problem that Obama should attempt to solve during the next two years….But at some point, the argument must end, and we must work together within some shared framework to foster coverage and quality while lowering costs.

OK, but surely there are some specifics, yes? Yes. For lefties, Brooks proposes throwing the bones of "spending more on infrastructure, research and job training," "investing in green energy," and "embracing industrial policy" (how this is different from what Obama has been doing for two years escapes me). Galston offers the left flank a National Infrastructure Bank ("The president should make it a centerpiece of his agenda"), vague hand-waving in the direction of immigration reform (his proposal is based entirely on a Michael Bloomberg quote), and this formulation: "Starting no later than 2015, all foreign combat commitments should be fully paid for, with a war surtax if necessary."

And for the right? Brooks suggests "fundamental welfare state reform," using as his one example making Medicare "a defined contribution program." Galston prescribes "modest benefit and revenue adjustments" to Social Security, and a plea for Obama to "underscore and defend" his education record (I list this under right-leaning not because Obama's education record has been anything like "reform," but because pundits like Brooks and Galston seem to think it has).

Our armchair speechwriters are on much more comfortable ground Thinking Big. Brooks:

the president will probably have to take advantage of the following paradox: bigger is easier. If he just tinkers around the edges with modest proposals, then everybody will be on familiar ground. But if he can expand the current debate, then, suddenly, everybody is on new ground.


All of these efforts lend themselves to a single, coherent narrative. […] Obama could say, we've faced our current challenges—and worse—throughout our history. From time to time, we've succumbed to pessimism and toyed with the possibility of national decline. We've always snapped out of it and gone on to greater things. That's America's story, and it's up to us to write the next chapter. We can do it.

Hell, let's just eliminate the middle man altogether:

I demand seriousness!

I snark because I care–about our crummy governance and economy, a thousand times more than about potential POTUS optics. The grand rhetorical gesture and the vague wave of the hand are crucial parts of the problem, which by my admittedly libertarian lights is that government at all levels is swallowing up ever-greater portions of the productive part of the economy and running up default-courting debts, while a debased political class attempts to unify around demanding still more of our doubloons in the name of 21st Century American Exceptionalism, or some goddamned thing. Need a grand narrative? How about this: We will, at long last, live within our means, and get government out of places it does not belong.

Until anyone–politician, pundit, punter–gets serious about cutting a government we absolutely positively cannot currently afford, their calls for presidential poetry should be met with hoots of derision.

Bonus trivia: Did you know that for 112 years, the American president refused on principle to deliver the State of the Union Address in front of Congress, because of Thomas Jefferson's insight that such an exercise was too much like the British crown's "Speech From the Throne"? You would if you read, or re-read, Gene Healy's always-timely June 2008 Reason classic, "The Cult of the Presidency."

NEXT: Reason Morning Links: Clouseau Edition

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  1. Is there no ailment that the proper dose of bullshit cannot cure?

    1. You Know What America Really Needs Right Now?

      A reality enema?

      1. Now that’s an idea I could get behind. Literally.

  2. Brooks’ column is also notable for one of the most staggeringly boring ledes I’ve seen this week: “President Obama faces an enormously difficult challenge over the next few weeks.”

    The sheer uninspired blandness of the sentence is magnified by the fact that it gets an entire paragraph to itself.

    1. I was good friends with the editor of my college newspaper, and occasionally visited him at work. That was when I found out how much emphasis was placed on headlines and ledes. The one I remember was from a movie review for Dick Tracy. “[Warren] Beatty’s Dick is on the rise.”

      1. “[Warren] Beatty’s Dick is on the rise.”

        That sounds delicious!

  3. So, in other words, Obama needs to continue to say nothing better than anybody?

  4. These people are so clueless it just boggles the mind.

  5. I think he should just blame everything on the Supreme Court. And then have them taken into “protective custody”.

  6. I’ll bet Obama could raise his favorability ratings 8-10 points by submitting the report on paper and forgoeing the speech.

    1. Wish it were so, but I know several people who will post to facebook how inspiring his speech was, perhaps with an, “I don’t understand how someone could not want to provide health insurance to children” thrown in.

  7. They are dumb as a stump if they think a good speech will make any difference whatsoever.

    1. Well, I think a good speech can help. Such as:

      “I, Barrack Hussein Obama, on behalf of myself, the Vice President, the entire cabinet, and the entire Congress of the United States hereby submit our resignations.”

      1. Only if followed by “No one will replace us. Ever.”

  8. We must invoke our traditional values to move the country forward and return to our former greatness, since our best days lie ahead of us.

    1. Let me be clear.

      I am so using that line, but I’m sure you meant “revoke.” And, of course, “God (wink, wink) bless America!”

  9. Liberals would get dollars for the unemployed in Ohio. Conservatives would cap the growth of government.

    Words mean what I want them to mean.
    Ponies for everyone!

    Tra-la, tra-la!

    *skips off, flinging flower petals in all directions*

  10. My challenge will be to continue to avoid hearing any State of the Union address.

    1. I once watched it in its entirety. That’s enough for one lifetime.

  11. Please stop reading David Brooks, Matt. It’s fucking you up. I mean, this “narrative” was almost as boring as, you know, a State of the Union address written by David Brooks.* You stare into the abyss long enough, and the abyss stares into you, and frankly, Matt, you’re starting to look like an abyss. And not a nice abyss either.

    *This is my guess, because I stopped reading when I saw the words “David Brooks.” It’s certainly long enough.

  12. Screw the SOTU Address. How about an improved State of the Union in general?

    1. Can they involve the Upright Citizens Brigade? I might watch then.

  13. My plan:

    After all the dignitaries have entered the Capitol for the Dance of the Sugar Plum Faeries State of the Union Address, we seal the doors and windows, turn on the gas, and exterminate them like the cockroaches they are.

    And the cameras should definitely be rolling.

    1. For real fun, we drop 1 gas mask into the chamber.

      1. The Shamalynamanmanan-ian Twist is that the gas mask is just a prop.

        1. I was thinking of doing a real gas max. Seeing them destroy it in their frenzy and deny anyone’s survival would be emblematic of so much about our government.

          1. gas mask. I’m getting John disease today.

            1. But they don’t know it’s a prop until the last man standing gets it on then start dying from the gas annyway. If we TOLD them it was a prop, it wouldn’t be much a twist would it?

      2. 1 defective gas mask.

  14. In my defense, I also mentioned the president’s perfectly-creased pants as a rationale for supporting his program.

  15. The comments on Brook’s column are priceless. It’s no wonder the man considers himself a conservative, given the outrage his readership is expressing over incredibly tepid and ineffective ideas about how to reform the budget and government.

  16. Re: What America needs

    More boots impacting against heads. Seriously. Kickstart some of those brains.

  17. My fellow Americans,

    We’re fighting a bunch of wars. And losing. But we can’t quit, for reasons I’m not telling.

    We’ve promised a shitload of benefits to retired people. We can’t afford them. If we cut them, old people don’t go to the doctor.

    We have a money system based on debt. Debt needs to be repaid. But if you repay it, you destroy the money, and the economy along with it. No one’s figured out how to keep this going.

    The earth is warming. We’re probably responsible for it, by burning carbon. Stop burning carbon, though, and the Industrial Revolution is over, more or less. Billions starve. Keep burning it, the climate will do crazy shit.

    Corollary problem: In 1971, America pumped more oil out of the ground than in any other year in history. We never pumped that much again, and currently pump only half that. Humanity as a whole just reached the same point, in 2005. Oil is going to be more and more expensive. There are no good replacements.

    Michelle has switched to decaf and isn’t taking it well.

    Malia won’t stop talking about that goddam vampire movie.

    And I just stubbed my toe really, really hard.

    We’re fucked. God bless America.

    1. Great, now I almost feel sorry for the guy.

  18. If Barack Obama would do away with the SOTU address, and go back to ye olde way of delivering the SOTU (in writing), I’d probably vote for his re-election just for that alone.

    1. You need a President less narcissistically wedded to the sound of his own voice.

  19. Obama’s challenge in the State of the Union address is to give voice to the inchoate longing for change, and to chart a political path through the Washington minefield so that voters and bond markets have the sense that the country is at least beginning to grapple with its problems.

    You know what else would give voters and bond markets the same sense? Actually grappling with problems. In real life. As opposed to just babbling about how you really want to address them, sometime in the future.

    These guys seem to have the same problem as my son: failure to realize that talking about doing something is not really the same as actually doing it.

    1. How many years until your son is eligible for office?

      1. He could be a Representative now. He still has a few more years before he can join the world’s greatest circle jerk and deliberative body.

  20. If the incoming Tea Party congressmen really wanted to stick it in the Beltway’s craw, they would get together, draft a nicely worded letter along the lines of “we the undersigned refuse to participate in this farcical snipe hunt in which the imperial deigns to grace us with his presence, then proceeds to waste our time talking about nothing while one side of Congress applauds on cue and the other looks as though they’d rather be at home rubbing one out and smoking a fatty. Sincerely, X.”

  21. When I saw the Ass Nine headline, I knew it had to be derived from a Brooks column.

    [T]he time is ripe?from both a policy and a political standpoint?to shift toward a comprehensive program of fiscal stabilization and economic growth

    ‘Fiscal stabilization’, enforcing a static model to ensure ‘economic growth’? Makes a lot of sense there, chief. Create an even more ‘dynamic’ bureaucracy to fight the last war, and see if you don’t compound on your previous errors given no lessons about bureaucratic tinkering were learned from the last meltdown.

    integrated into a narrative of American success in the twenty-first century.

    You know Galston, when Peretz gave that staff meeting several months ago talking about the ‘narrative’ he was just signaling that the Stephen Glass scandal is more than a decade behind the newsmag so it is okay for you guys to go back to making shit up again. He did not mean for you to endlessly drone on about narrative itself.

  22. Buy a SotU speech from the guy who writes all those research papers for lazy scum college kids. Gotta be better than anything Comrade Soetoro and Axelrod cook up.

    1. But then people would DEFINITELY know that Obama was turning in someone else’s work. As it is, we can only suspect that Bush is doing all of Obama’s homework.

  23. Brooks proposes throwing the bones of “spending more on infrastructure, research and job training,” “investing in green energy,” and “embracing industrial policy

    How is this guys even close to being a conservative?

    In other columns does he lambaste abortion rights, gay bash, hate on immigrants and support bombing Iran?

  24. “embracing industrial policy”

    You know what? I’m sick of seeing the word “embrace” used in this sort of context. Anytime I see it, I’m just going to start interpreting it literally. Obama physically hugging a printout of his current industrial policy.

    1. I do wish the fuckers could at least buy a dictionary and a thesaurus.

  25. I think that the SOTU is worth watching. Not for the content of the speech itself (although I would amend that if Obama did the “authentic frontier gibberish” speech from Blazing Saddles), but rather for the sharp reminder of how sick and pathetic our “leaders” are. I mean, damn: those long standing ovations every time the Dear Leader opens his mouth to draw breath? It borders on fellatio.

    Why does anybody seriously believe that such people should be given so much power?

    1. Why does anybody seriously believe that such people should be given so much power?

      Enough insecurity and fear can addle the greatest mind.

  26. “inchoate longing for change”

    If our “longings” stopped being so “inchoate”, it would put turds like Brooks out of business – their sole reason for existence being to prevent Americans from thinking too hard about shit.

  27. the inchoate longing for change

    LarryA: “Look, Stupid, what I want is change in the opposite direction; less government, not more!”

    Brooks: “If only the people knew what they really wanted.”

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