State of the Union

In the wonky circles round the net that I find myself reading when I’m not driving about the country actually working on politics, good commentary on the State of the Union abounds. Ed Kilgore does a solid job summarizing the political significance of the thing. And Matt Yglesias boils it down to a sentence:

As I understand it, gay soldiers will win the future by riding high speed trains to salmon farms.

The general consensus is that the speech was vague on policy specifics (and that doesn’t matter since the president cannot achieve any policy goals with the Republican-controlled House) but was a very smart piece of strategic, political positioning (which also doesn’t much matter either because November 2012 is still a long way off). I generally agree. But I want to point out that, as far as I can tell, this speech is the first time that Team Obama has adopted the Mitch McConnell world view, turned it on its head and used it for their own purposes. Here’s McConnell, from Josh Green’s profile in The Atlantic, on his policy of strict obstructing all of Obama’s legislative proposals:

“We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” McConnell says. “Because we thought—correctly, I think—that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.”

According to McConnell, the majority of Americans are politically pretty oblivious. They don’t read proposed legislation. They don’t even read wonks who read proposed legislation. They just absorb the political climate surrounding proposed legislation: bipartisan support = good, no bipartisan support = bad. Thus, McConnell concludes, if his party denies support to ALL of Obama’s proposed legislation, then it will all = bad. Which of course is good for Republicans. But very bad for the country, as Matt Yglesias points out, because our country’s government structurally requires bipartisan votes in order to function.

Now, it seems to me that at last night’s address Obama and the Democrats played their own version of McConnell’s game, but they reversed it. Instead of strict obstructionism, we got enforced conviviality. First, you had the bipartisan couples sitting throughout the chamber, as opposed to the traditional partisan seating arrangements. McConnell wasn’t happy about this idea. It gave the impression that the whole audience was cheering the President, not just his party. Bipartanship = good.

But my favorite moment of enforced conviviality was a slick maneuver Obama pulled in his speech. Speaking on the American Dream, he said:

That dream is why I can stand here before you tonight.  That dream is why a working-class kid from Scranton can sit behind me.  (Laughter and applause.)  That dream is why someone who began by sweeping the floors of his father’s Cincinnati bar can preside as Speaker of the House in the greatest nation on Earth.  (Applause.)

Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner, to whom this passage obviously refers, were seated right behind the President. After Obama’s words, they couldn’t not chuckle, smile, shake hands and slap each other on the back. They were forced to be convivial. It’s a tremendous image of bipartisanship, inspired by the President’s words and backdropping his speech. And so, if you follow McConnell, the largely oblivious American people will believe  that “there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.” And that way is Obama’s.


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