Barack Obama

Obama's State of the Union: A Speech About Everything, and Nothing


Credit: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

You can think of President Obama's State of the Union address as a movie trailer for the next four years. Trailers are supposed to sell a movie's core concept, but it was hard to find a unifying idea in last night's speech. 

Instead, Obama gave a speech about, well, everything: It offered a comprehensive liberal-technocratic wishlist, packed with proposals and pseudo-policies, careful phrases and good intentions. You could describe it as the ultimate laundry list speech: laying out proposal after proposal, policy after policy. And it suffered for it, playing more like a series of spoken bullet points than a speech with an arc and an idea. 

"The American people don't expect government to solve every problem," Obama said in the speech. But he seems to think they expect the government to solve a lot of them. His speech talked about, among others things: raising the minimum wage, expanding early childhood education, assisting homeowners with mortgage refinancing, finding policies to reduce carbon emissions, slowing the growth of Medicare through payment tweaks, increasing taxes on the wealthy, giving tax breaks to companies that hire American workers, improving the voting experience, investing in veteran's health care, ditching tax code loopholes, reforming the immigration system, going all in on clean energy to compete with China, expanding infrastructure building and hiring, increasing transparency in higher education, passing new restrictions on gun sales, reducing the energy used by homes, and creating new domestic manufacturing jobs. 

That's quite the list. But what's remarkable is how little of it was truly new. In some form or another, we've heard all these ideas before.

What that suggests is that Obama doesn't have a big, governing idea anymore. He just has a long list of things he'd like to do, or at least talk about doing.

Credit: Barack Obama / / CC BY-NC-SA

Some of the proposals, like raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour, were quite specific. But others weren't even really proposals at all. A "nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience"? In Washington, a commission is what you create when you want to look like you're doing something — not what you do when you actually want something specific to happen.

Or take climate change. In order to prepare for its effects and head off potential consequences, Obama promised to "direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future." As Yuval Levin says, that phrase is basically an admission of failure — an indication that the administration wanted to do something, but couldn't come up with anything to do.

The closest thing to a big idea in the speech was that government should be about helping the middle class.

Obama referenced the middle class a half dozen times in the speech, talking about reigniting "the true engine of America's economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class" and building "new ladders of opportunity into the middle class."

That's an idea, I suppose, but not much of one. What would be surprising is if the president didn't promise to help the middle class. Essentially, it says, "as president, I would like to focus on making life better for the vast majority of people in this country." 

That's about as bland a message as you can imagine. Indeed, you can tell how deeply bland it is by the fact that the Mitt Romney, a candidate whose entire campaign was built on a studious commitment to blandness, tried to make it one of his themes, albeit in his own stilted, awkward way. About a year ago, Romney made headlines for saying he wasn't concerned about "the very poor." But many of those headlines downplayed the context; in the same remark, Romney also said he wasn't concerned about the very rich. Instead, he said, "I'm concerned about the very heart of America, the 90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling." 

If Obama's lengthy listicle of a speech is a preview of the next four years, then we should expect something that resembles a remake more than a sequel: Obama will try to recapture the energy of the original by doing more. But we'll have seen it all before. 


NEXT: Largest Trade Agreement in History Needs Approval From 27 European Countries and the U.S. Congress. What Could Go Wrong?

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  1. My fellow Americans, we must not allow a blandness gap.

    1. Starting with you.

  2. Less is more – much less is much more – nothing is better than anything. Go play golf for four years, Barry.

  3. See? You can always think of more free shit for the government to give away.

    Once you are done with food, housing, and healthcare… FREE DAYCARE!

    In the future, fat Americans confined to wheelchairs for obesity will be entitled to free inhome IVF where they can disgorge babies directly into the hands of social service workers who will immediately deliver them to government run daycare centers. After which they will be safely routed into the cradle to grave welfare system, from which they can grow up to be fat Americans confined to wheelchairs.

    1. Now if he could make everybody do their bit by pheromone control, the USA would be the 1st country to advance to eusociality. (And the Greek prefix eu- means good…)

      1. I was thinking something more like ‘The Matrix’ meets ‘Idiocracy’, but that one is good too.

  4. “The closest thing to a big idea in the speech was that government should be about helping the middle class”

    Which is another manifestaion of Obama’s economic idiocy.

    Government had nothing to do with creating the middle class and it won’t be government that “saves” it – IF it needs saving, which hasn’t been established to begin with.

    It is government itself that is the biggest impediment to people in the middle class – progressive taxation, stifling rules and regulations that punish success, reward failure and erect barriers to prevent people from moving up within the middle class to the higher tiers of it – or on out into the “rich” class.

    1. The central problem is not that Obama is wrong about what needs saving, he’s simply 180 degrees away from what it needs saving from:

      The middle class doesn’t need to be saved by government. It needs to be saved from it. Govt lines the pockets of the rich and well-connected and subsidizes the poor and unproductive. All at the expense of the middle.

      1. It’s almost as if the middle class American is some kind of…..Forgotten Man.

  5. What a scrooge – why not a $15 or $20 minimum wage? Why does Obama hate the underpaid?

    1. You’re way too conservative. One point five million annual minimum wage. Now everyone is a millionaire and BHO can raise income taxes on all those ugly millionaires. Problem solved.

  6. When everything is a priority than nothing is a priority.

  7. nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience

    * All voting will be done at titty bars.

    * Tyrone Biggums Says: “Rock the Vote, Get Rocks for Voting”

    * All voters enter a raffle for a winning ticket, which entitles the winner to lower one politician, chosen by the winner, into a vat of boiling diarrhea.

    1. * Clowns to entertain voters during those six-hour voting sessions.

      * Electronic voting machines with the look-and-feel of casino slots.

  8. Obama’s State of the Union: A Speech About Everything, and Nothing

    Total departure from all previous SOTU speeches.

  9. A Speech About Everything, and Nothing

    You know, Seinfeld was a show about nothing, and it was fairly successful.

    Just mentioning.

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