A Post-Rhetorical Obama
Instead of giving ground after a shock defeat in Massachusetts, Obama showed style and candor in his State of the Union speech—even if hectoring the Supreme Court justices was unseemly.
One was tempted to say before the State of the Union address that Barack Obama’s presidency to date was likely to be a tale of two parts, BM and AM—Before Massachusetts and After Massachusetts—with the president changing course in some abrupt and opportunistic way in response to Scott Brown’s shock win last week. Instead, we saw Obama stand his ground, not mulishly but stylishly. Even his opponents must concede the integrity and chutzpah of it all.
What I liked about the speech:
- It was clear and low-key and borderline boring. I think we may have seen the emergence of a post-rhetorical Obama. Phew.
- The spending freeze, even though it “won’t take effect until next year, which is how budgets work.” (To my friends on the right, I ask this question: Would you rather he had no freeze at all?) This was arguably the first State of the Union speech that had large segments drafted by a head of the Congressional Budget Office. (One could see Peter Orszag twitching behind the arras.)
- The announced end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a policy for which—unlike the opposition to gay marriage—there has never been any respectable philosophical basis.
What I didn’t like about the speech:
- Obama was totally out of order in singling out the Supreme Court for criticism for its effective repeal of McCain-Feingold while its members were present. I thought that was an unseemly, hectoring moment that did the president no credit. (That said, Samuel Alito is my new mini-hero for muttering truth to power.)
- Obama’s call for “a new jobs bill tonight.” How on earth do you legislate jobs into existence?
- His inability, once again, to be reassuring on Iraq and Afghanistan.
- Joe Biden’s teeth—the blinding bling that distracted every American viewer over the course of 70 minutes and 86 standing ovations.
Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. (Follow him on Twitter here.)