Something Missing

Obama’s State of the Union Was Strong on Substance, Weak on Poetry

The speech was strong on taxes and the banks, but its final moments felt forced, says Michael Tomasky.

Grade: B. It was ... a good speech. The big newsmaker is the new definition of the “Buffett Rule,” that people who make $1 million or more a year should pay at least 30 percent in taxes. And it’s fairly clear who this was aimed at: “When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference” (hint: it's somebody who released two years’ worth of tax returns yesterday and paid around 14 percent). Obama was tough on the banks, a little tougher than I’d expected. And I was surprised to hear him mention some “process issues” and call for votes on presidential nominees in 90 days. But just mentioning that in passing isn’t enough; he needed to explain to people what Republicans were doing if he wanted that part of the speech to lead to action and follow-up, and he didn't do that.

As for the closing peroration, what should we make, really, of comparing a nation trying to crawl out of a terrible recession to an elite commando unit? That felt awfully forced to me. Yes, it signals that Obama is not going to be shy during the campaign about exploiting the killing of bin Laden, and he shouldn’t be shy about it. But we are not a nation of Navy SEALs, and there is far more ideological space between Americans than there is between him and Bill Gates. It was just a stretch. Everybody on TV seemed to like it, but I found it ... not exactly inappropriate, but inapt. SEALs follow orders. Citizens don’t, and they can’t be compelled to in a democracy. But if it gives him some purchase on the patriotism question, what with all the nutty things that are still said about him, I suppose that’s all right.