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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Here’s everything wrong with Daniel Hannan’s tweet about Saturday’s Unite for Europe march

I am Captain Ahab, and Dan is my great white whale, enraging and mocking me in equal measure through his continued political survival.

I was going to give up the Daniel Hannan thing, I really was. He’s never responded to this column, despite definitely being aware of it. The chances of him changing his views in response to verifiable facts seem to be nil, so the odds of him doing it because some smug lefty keeps mocking him on the internet must be into negative numbers.

And three different people now have told me that they were blissfully unaware of Hannan's existence until I kept going on about him. Doing Dan’s PR for him was never really the point of the exercise – so I was going to quietly abandon the field, leave Hannan to his delusion that the disasters ahead are entirely the fault of the people who always said Brexit would be a disaster, and get back to my busy schedule of crippling existential terror.

Told you he was aware of it.

Except then he does something so infuriating that I lose an entire weekend to cataloguing the many ways how. I just can’t bring myself to let it go: I am Captain Ahab, and Dan is my great white whale, enraging and mocking me in equal measure through his continued political survival.

I never quite finished that book, but I’m sure it all worked out fine for Ahab, so we might as well get on with it*. Here’s what’s annoying me this week:

And here are some of the many ways in which I’m finding it obnoxious.

1. It only counts as libel if it’s untrue.

2. This sign is not untrue.

3. The idea that “liars, buffoons and swivel-eyed loons” are now in control of the country is not only not untrue, it’s not even controversial.

4. The leaders of the Leave campaign, who now dominate our politics, are 70 per cent water and 30 per cent lies.

5. For starters, they told everyone that, by leaving the EU, Britain could save £350m a week which we could then spend on the NHS. This, it turned out, was a lie.

6. They said Turkey was about to join the EU. This was a lie too.

7. A variety of Leave campaigners spent recent years saying that our place in the single market was safe. Which it turned out was... oh, you guessed.

8. As to buffoons, well, there’s Brexit secretary David Davis, for one, who goes around cheerfully admitting to Select Committees that the government has no idea what Brexit would actually do to the economy.

9. There was also his 2005 leadership campaign, in which he got a variety of Tory women to wear tight t-shirts with (I’m sorry) “It’s DD for me” written across the chest.

10. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson, meanwhile, is definitely a liar AND a buffoon.

11. I mean, you don’t even need me to present any evidence of that one, do you? You just nodded automatically.

12. You probably got there before me, even. For what it's worth, he was sacked from The Times for making up a quote, and sacked from the shadow frontbench for hiding an affair.

13. Then there’s Liam Fox, who is Liam Fox.

14. I’m not going to identify any “swivel-eyed loons”, because mocking someone’s physical attributes is mean and also because I don’t want to get sued, but let’s not pretend Leave campaigners who fit the bill would be hard to find.

15. Has anyone ever managed to read a tweet by Hannan beginning with the words “a reminder” without getting an overwhelming urge to do unspeakable things to an inanimate object, just to get rid of their rage?

16. Even if the accusation made in that picture was untrue, which it isn’t, it wouldn’t count as libel. It’s not possible to libel 52 per cent of the electorate unless they form a distinct legal entity. Which they don’t.

17. Also, at risk of coming over a bit AC Grayling, “52 per cent of those who voted” is not the same as “most Britons”. I don’t think that means we can dismiss the referendum result, but those phrases mean two different things.

18. As ever, though, the most infuriating thing Hannan’s done here is a cheap rhetorical sleight of hand. The sign isn’t talking about the entire chunk of the electorate who voted for Brexit: it’s clearly talking specifically about the nation’s leaders. He’s conflated the two and assumed we won’t notice.

19. It’s as if you told someone they were shit at their job, and they responded, “How dare you attack my mother!”

20. Love the way Hannan is so outraged that anyone might conflate an entire half of the population with an “out of touch elite”, something that literally no Leave campaigners have ever, ever done.

21. Does he really not know that he’s done this? Or is he just pretending, so as to give him another excuse to imply that all opposition to his ideas is illegitimate?

22. Once again, I come back to my eternal question about Hannan: does he know he’s getting this stuff wrong, or is he genuinely this dim?

23. Will I ever be able to stop wasting my life analysing the intellectual sewage this infuriating man keeps pouring down the internet?

*Related: the collected Hannan Fodder is now about the same wordcount as Moby Dick.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.