Obama’s Address: It’s All About the Mojo
By my rough estimate, 114,278 bloggers have already commented on President Obama’s State of the Union Address. (That’s the SOTU by the POTUS, to use the acronyms favored by ostentatiously au courant bloggers.) So what can The New Moderate add to the day-old conversation?
We can observe that our bruised and battered yearling president finally recovered his mojo last night. It was about time. Obama had been heading down the road once traveled by Jimmy Carter: the charming and magnetic candidate, the thoughtful outsider who won voters’ hearts with his candor and integrity, seemed to be morphing into a classic policy wonk — smart and conscientious, certainly, but also aloof, indecisive and oddly uninspiring.
Until last night. Obama must have eaten his spinach before he entered the House chamber, because he suddenly sprouted muscles and regained his superpowers before our jaded eyes. He was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and almost able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. (Our hyperpartisan Congress is a pretty tall building for anyone to leap.)
It was a galvanizing, brilliantly delivered speech — probably the best of his presidency. (How Obama manages to look and sound spontaneous while reading off a teleprompter is one of life’s great mysteries.) Obama was statesmanlike, eloquent, compassionate, relaxed and witty.
He was feisty, too. In fact, he went out of his way (conveniently, some critics would argue) to chastise the two branches of the federal government not under his direct supervision.
Naturally he called for an end to partisan bickering and stonewalling in Congress — as he should. Then, in his most controversial gesture, the president scolded the Supreme Court for abolishing caps on corporate campaign spending. I have to confess that it was a hoot to watch those nine black-robed potentates as they silently absorbed their punishment, like chastened grade-school pupils, before a national TV audience. (Justice Alito’s sotto voce backtalk only added to the fun.)
Did Obama step out of line? Perhaps he did, but these are extraordinary times that call for bold and unorthodox gestures. If Obama hadn’t stepped out of line, we might continue to drift silently and inexorably away from representative democracy toward government-by-lobby.
Conservatives have huffed about Obama’s anti-corporatist stance on campaign spending as a blatant violation of First Amendment free-speech rights. I say hooey! Since when is an unlimited advertising budget guaranteed to us by the Bill of Rights? How many private citizens can afford to advertise on behalf of their chosen candidates? No, Obama’s gesture was a long-overdue recognition of popular outrage at a system that favors moneyed interests over the common good. Any moderate worthy of the name would strive to tip the balance back to the center, so that no special interests — right or left — can gain the upper hand.
Eventually, all private interests should be banned from funding political campaigns. Given the current make-up of the Supreme Court (that’s SCOTUS to the blogging community), the corporations and powerful lobbies will continue to have their way with Congress (and with us) for years to come. But Obama’s disciplinary moment gave the put-upon public a welcome opportunity to vent some anger, at least by proxy.
We moderates have a lamentable tendency to please nobody by trying to please everybody. Obama is no exception. Many of his former enthusiasts on the left zapped him after his speech. Why? Obama talked a good talk, the progressives argue, but he outlined precious little in the way of concrete plans to bail out ordinary Americans during the Great Recession. Where are the FDR-style public works programs and safety nets, they ask. Even I have to admit that tax credits and belt-tightening don’t really soothe the suffering or inflame the imagination.
What inflamed the imagination last night was the tone of Obama’s State of the Union Address. (In speeches as in upscale restaurants, presentation is everything.) After a year of wobbling, wandering and regrouping, the president seems to have reached inside and rediscovered his animating spirit. I like that spirit: a seamless combination of heart and intellect, optimism and caution, idealism and pragmatism, humor and high purpose.
In short, Obama embodies moderation at its best. From such a spirit good works would almost certainly flow — if only our fractious and tainted government would let them.