Obama’s Speech Took Ideas From the GOP and Rhetoric From Madison Avenue

The president’s dull State of the Union speech lacked poetry and fresh ideas, writes Lee Siegel.

Jewel Samad, AFP / Getty Images

“An America built to last.” Is that the best Obama can do?

Trying to stay awake through the president’s lackluster State of the Union address, I was struck by the mediocre rhetoric. In some ways, the lack of linguistic virtuosity came as a relief. Obama’s strength has always been his eloquence, while his weakness has been an irritating inability to match stiffness of spine with splendor of language. But at a moment when he is facing the weakest Republican field in recent memory, you expected his language to possess the force of action. Yet he seemed interested only in recasting GOP concepts in his own idiom.

Consider the themes of his speech Tuesday night. “A renewal of American values?” The words, delivered by this ultra-cosmopolitan president with little conviction, seemed rented. The American military—for all their courage and sacrifice—as the model for the rest of society? But it’s the Republicans who see social life as an unregulated battle between winners and losers, not decent, liberal Obama. A paean to the lack of “personal ambition” in the American armed forces? The president, who has tangled with his generals, must have been kidding.

Just when the moment is ripe to draw a clear distinction between Obama’s opponents, who want to return to social Darwinian notions of individualism, and the modern necessity of government ensuring the fair play he spoke of, Obama punked out. He settled for a glib professorial inversion: we’re the ones who practice American values, not you. He settled for cynical demonstrations of his own commitment to reducing the size of government and to cutting corporate taxes.

He presented the American people with a choice between the other side’s phoniness and his authenticity. That’s too confusing. He should have presented a choice between their vision of America and his. Instead he strove to demonstrate that his vision embraced theirs. That will not convince any of the unconvinced.

It was amusing to read commentators scrambling to find the source of “built to last.” Was it from an old commercial for Chevy, Ford, or Chrysler? The confusion over the origins of the lackluster phrase reflected its weaselish quality. It is not language framing a political vision; it is a campaign slogan serving an expedient purpose. In a speech clearly meant to address the swing voters in states like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, “built to last” seemed intended to make them think of their own trade and therefore their own interests. But that would be to travel quite a labyrinth of mental associations. Rather, wait for Romney, the son of an auto executive who tried to take on Detroit’s Big Three, to cut more directly to that particular chase for votes.

Though he is celebrated for his eloquence, Obama’s language has often been a knock-off of someone else’s. You could write a thick book tracing his appropriation of rhetoric from Lincoln, FDR, Truman, JFK, and lately, Teddy Roosevelt. Even the now-legendary campaign slogan from 2008, “Yes We Can” was derived from none other than George W. Bush’s 2004 “Yes America Can!” (Not to mention the title of the Sammy Davis Jr. autobiography, “Yes I Can.”) However, borrowing from decades-old car commercials is a new rhetorical low, and a futile one at that. Slogans like “It’s Morning Again in America” or “Kinder, Gentler Nation,” for all their self-parodic aura now, were more built to last than “Built To Last.”

But Tuesday’s State of the Union seemed more reactive than pro-active, more a response to recent Republican challenges than a self-sufficient statement. Even Michelle, smiling adoringly at her husband like a 50s housewife beaming during her husband’s speech to the Rotary Club, was transformed into a reactive prop for the occasion—her unthreatening blue dress crying out to the audience, “I am not an angry black woman!” Your heart sank as you watched the president, who has at long last realized that the election will be as much about race as about the economy, rush past his black admirers as he left the congressional chamber, being careful to not even make eye contact with them. As always, needing to stand firm for what he is and what he believes, he is trying to assimilate the other side instead of defining himself against them.

Appalled by Mitt Gumby’s infinite flexibility, you were nevertheless left wondering which form of spinelessness you preferred in the White House. I suppose there is a bright side to that. Romney finally released his tax returns after weeks of pressure on him to do so. Obama finally established a consumer protection bureau and a task force on financial fraud when he realized that November is right around the corner. Maybe instead of holding presidential elections every four years, we should hold them every four weeks.