State of the Union

The Union Survives Another State of the Union Speech

Life on Planet SOTU

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"Middle-Class Economics": a phrase so bland it makes me miss "Opportunity Society"
whitehouse.gov

The state of our union is strong. It can withstand wars, economic crises, and long speeches by powerful gasbags. Tonight we survived a presidential address that began with a promise—"I want to focus less on a checklist of proposals"—and then promptly broke it, giving us a policy agenda that covered everything from community-college subsidies to the exploration of Mars.

Well, not everything. I couldn't help noticing, when Obama got around to giving criminal justice reform a shoutout, that the subject didn't come up during his laundry list of actual proposals. Other times he called for a measure that wasn't quite as substantial as it sounded. While he promised to ask Congress for authorization to fight ISIS, for example, that concession to the Constitution would have been more meaningful if he'd requested permission before he entered the war.

At one moment, waxing green, Obama invoked "the one planet we've got." But he spent a good deal of his speech describing a second world, one wildly different from the planet most of us live on. On Planet SOTU, the drone war is "properly constrained" and the White House makes sure to "defend free speech." Here on Earth, the administration claimed the drone strike that killed Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was perfectly legal, and it responded to an attack on a U.S. embassy by pressuring YouTube to take down a video.

The most alien moment of all came when Obama told us "we need to set our sights higher than making sure the government doesn't screw things up." First things first, Mr. President. For now, not screwing things up would be a really good goal.

And the Republican response? I thought the animatronic Joni Ernst that delivered it was pretty good. Its monotone sounded almost human, and it really mastered all three of its facial expressions. I was also impressed with the platitude-generating algorithm that produced the GOP speech—it won't be passing a Turing test anytime soon, but clearly it's getting close. As a political agenda, there isn't much to cheer here, but as a glimpse of our high-tech future, it's almost as exciting as Obama's discovery of an alien world.