Obama sounded a little too clever

The president is unconvincing as a man of the people.

It is typical of these times in America that prior to Barack Obama's first State of the Union speech, almost no one in Washington had much of an idea what he ought to focus on. Such was the case at Local 16, a lively bar on the corner of New Hampshire and U Street, where Generation Obama -- his own youth movement -- was holding the traditional SOTU Watch Party.

Whoops of "Yes, we can" greeted the PA system when it was switched on shortly before the address. But aside from this, and the chorus of BlackBerries going off around the room, few of these young Obamaniacs were confident enough to predict which way the president might go.

Since the Scott Brown vote in Massachusetts last week, in fact, all bets have been off. The two main topics on everyone's lips have been jobs and health care, of course. But nobody knew if Obama was going to address one or both of these, nor even quite how. Just about the one thing Democratic commentators agreed on was the view, articulated in Politico by the governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, that unless Obama came out fighting, "we're going to get shellacked".

Beyond that, it was a free-for-all. Some felt that the president needed to lay it all out there, and call out the obstructionists who have helped to sink many of his proposals to date. Others felt he needed to placate the left, which had sneered at the details leaked by the White House on Tuesday concerning proposals for a debt commission and a three-year freeze on domestic spending. And many were adamant that he needed to say at least something about the two wars in which his country is fighting.

So, how did he fare? And was his much-fabled oratory up to the task of smoothing over the inevitable cracks he would have to leave between such irreconcilable policies?

 

Shades of change

To spare you the wait, for this was a long speech, what he did not indulge in was any Grant Park oratory. He kept his speech in that third-gear setting we have got used to since he came into office. Thankfully he also just about avoided the college professor tone that has alienated a good few Americans in the past 12 months.

But if he wasn't Barack the orator, and he wasn't Barack the professor, who was he, exactly?

Obama seemed to track his way across a spectrum of different roles, first setting himself up with almost Blair-like enunciative stretch as a local man to deliver a variant on Bill Clinton's "I feel your pain" moment. Then he shifted into family patriarch mode to remonstrate with those who have been causing him more than a little pain of late. Finally, he reappeared as a born-again politician in some semblance of control amid the melee going on around him.

It was a deliberate rhetorical arc chained to a new variant on his message of Change. "Yes, it can" became "Let's get it done". But the message, for all its artful repositioning of the president, sounded strangely unconvincing.

Obama started on the right note at least, coming out fighting as many hoped he would. Democrats had been gorging themselves on self-rebuke since the Brown shock wave, but he was having none of this.

"I have never been more hopeful about America's future than I am tonight," he declared, smiling. That caught people off-guard and drew an early round of applause. When he went on to talk about embodying the American people's strength, he got more applause (and a few cheers from the drinkers in Local 16, too). He followed this up with a populist one-liner about the bank rescue programme. "We all hated the bank bailout," he said. "I hated it. You hated it."

So far, so good, then. But what almost everyone at Local 16 was waiting for was to see how bullish Obama was going to be on jobs, and to see how defensive he was going to be on health.

Rightly, he addressed the jobs issue first, setting in motion an ambitious new jobs bill and demanding that it appear on his desk without delay. The proposed legislation wasn't short on specifics, either, with proposals to take $30bn from Wall Street to reinvest in community banks for lending on to small businesses, to eliminate all capital gains tax, and to instantiate instead small-business tax credits. He also set out a comprehensive set of FDR-style infrastructure projects, including work that will break ground today on a rail link in Florida, on nuclear power stations, and on clean-energy technology.

As if to counter the earlier populism, he even managed to weave in a liberalist take on the Victorian geopolitical theorist Halford Mackinder's maxim that he who controls the world-island rules the world, declaring that "the nation that leads the clean-energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy".

In fact, it was from this palette of "more jobs" that Obama added in pretty much all the colour he would see fit to render in his speech: competitiveness, national development, leadership, education. However, he failed, I thought, to drive home fully the importance of all this to the middle class, or to show his own democratic centrists what they would have to gain from yet more proposals spewing forth from their president. And it was rather a telling sign of his priorities that he left mention of the middle class -- arguably the crucial group he needed to win over with this SOTU -- until he got to the other hotly anticipated part of the speech: health care.

 

Wag that finger

But Obama did not get on to it until he was already a good half-hour into his speech, by which time those drinkers who had "bipartisan" on their SOTU bingo card were getting restless.

The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, had ramped up the issue of health care earlier in the day by saying that "failure is not an option", but this only served to highlight the very lack of attention Obama gave it in his speech. The House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, was sticking closer to the script when he used an appearance on The Ed Schultz Show, earlier in the day, to clobber Republicans with the accusation that that such delay on reform as there had been was because they had "refused to participate".

The president did not advance the issue beyond this. In fact, he seemed to want to run the clock down on the time he was giving to health, gesturing up to the First Lady, who stole the show as he was doubtless hoping she would. When Michelle Obama had directed attention back to her husband, he went on to point out that it was to relieve the burden on the middle class that he was still going to push for health-care reform, regardless of opposition.

Unlike all the rest of the speech, however, he offered no specifics here. What he did do was to offer a flat challenge to Republicans to come up with a better deal if they disliked his plans so much. "I will not walk away from these [uninsured] Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber," he said.

Here then was Obama's second guise for this speech: that of household head, replete with paternalistic finger-wagging, which he used to admonish the Republicans, primarily, insisting that "neither party should oppose every single bill just because they can".

Indeed, for all the importance of health care and jobs, what his discussion of both issues was more properly about was the extent to which he would continue to reach out to the Republicans, or whether he would now give up the ghost on a bipartisan approach that has continually knocked him back, and go it alone.

The answer here was, as ever with Obama, a little of both. He openly criticised last week's Supreme Court ruling on corporate political funding, and he again criticised the Republicans. But then it was on to a plethora of other bills that he still hoped to pass in the spirit of bipartisanship. And so it really wasn't clear that very much had changed at all. John McCain and others, including Bob McConnell, governor of Virginia, who gave the official GOP response, were quick to pick up on this. Obama railed against the old politics, they pointed out, but his own speech had clearly been poll-tested to death.

 

Time bomb

In fairness, and probably for that very reason, the first Obama State of the Union address was probably quite a bit cleverer than many pundits are giving it credit for. Most importantly, it contained a jobs plan that far exceeded the small-bore shrapnel that many had predicted. But it was too weak on health, and too ambitious on everything else, as if to make up for that one gaping hole. It had some sound policy, some grandstanding, and the occasional sop (most notably to ending "Don't ask, don't tell" across the armed forces).

But the real time bomb hidden inside it -- seeing as it is the tone as much as the substance of an SOTU that is most usually remembered -- is that all too often Obama sounded just a little too clever, at times even a little too smug.

If he had kept it simpler, kept to the "Let's try common sense" line he put in at the end -- when many in Local 16, including myself, had begun to wane -- he could have done more with it. And he could have been more convincing as a man of the people. That was the A-game that America needed him to play, because in Washington being right is not enough.

As I strolled back home along U Street, away from African-American Memorial Station, it struck me that, for all Washington is a great city, it always seems to look better at night. Predictably, while Obama was speaking, it sounded a little better tonight, too. But it was perhaps equally inevitable that the tune barely survived to the end of Larry King.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.