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Nice change, but Obama’s speech didn’t fly me to the moon

2012 is an election year, and it is necessary to view the speech as a preview of his pitch for four more years.

President Obama’s State of the Union (SOTU) message (full text here from White House website) was a nice change from the four-a-week series of televised Republican splat-ball contests (the next debate is Thursday night). But Obama definitely didn’t fly me to the moon (nor did the speech let me play among the stars).

Several commentators (Andrew Sullivan had a good version of this) were reminded of Bill Clinton’s approach to his second term: lots of small, somewhat moderate proposals that would be hard for Republicans to ridicule as Bolshevism.

If we take the SOTU as what it’s supposed to be — a president’s vision for the year ahead — it’s naïve to think that Republicans, who have the power to block everything but executive orders,  are going to risk making Obama look good by enacting any of his proposals.

But since — in case you hadn’t heard — 2012 is an election year (and, Obama hopes, a reelection year), it is necessary to view the speech as a preview of his pitch for four more years.

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What was the pitch? Something like this: In my first term, I did big things. (He did, you know, and the Repubs pledge to repeal all of them.) Recognizing the change in the Congress, if I get a second term, I will do small things. But those small things will require that the richest Americans pay more taxes. So, while frequently telling them that I’m not Robespierre, I’m going to keep making the case for that.

GOP charges
Peter Beinert, writing for the Daily Beast/Newsweek and disliking the speech much more than I did, put it this way:

“From Mitt Romney to Newt Gingrich to Glenn Beck, the conservative assault on Barack Obama comes down to this: Unfettered capitalism is true Americanism. Obama’s efforts to use government to make American capitalism more stable and more just constitute an alien imposition, hatched in foreign lands, and designed to make us less free… Obama will either effectively answer that charge, or he will lose reelection.”

Free free free, the Repubs will say. Fair fair fair, the Dems will answer. From Obama last night:

“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.  [Applause.]  What’s at stake aren’t Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. And we have to reclaim them.”

Actually, I beg to differ. As things now stand, those are Dem proposals.

I wish Obama would stop trying to do everything with tax incentives. He should steal the Repub thunder by embracing a radical simplification of the tax code, then set the rates — and rates could go down for everyone if you took out most of the credits and deductions — so that they would raise more revenue, more progressively than the current system does. Adding complexity to the tax code breeds cynicism and is game for the rich.

Mitch Daniels responds
In choosing Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels to give the Repub rebuttal, the party made a strange comment about their own presidential field. Daniels is smart, calm, dull and reasonable.

This being the TV age and all, it was hard to get past how dweebie he looks. But if you listened to him, he was channeling an older, saner style of Republicanism. Daniels overreached when he described Obama’s policies as “pro poverty,” but he managed to capture some of the more respectable Repub objections to Obamaism when he described it as a “grand experiment in trickle-down government,” when he bemoaned “all those stimulus dollars that the president borrowed and blew,” and when he referred to “a government as big and bossy as this one.”

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It goes without saying Daniels went without mentioning any of the dollars that Obama’s unmentionable predecessor borrowed and blew.

After Daniels spoke, Ari Fleischer, the former Bush spokester now part of CNN’s analysis team, gushed about Daniels. Fleischer confessed he wishes Daniels had jumped into the presidential race. Two seconds later, Dem operative Paul Begala slammed Daniels’ presentation as “a glass of warm milk with a fly in it — both boring and depressing.” As they say folks: that’s infotainment.

For a sampling of smart, diverse pundit reaction to the speech, you couldn’t do better than the roundup of  my favorite aggregator, Taegan Goddard.

But if what you want is a good laugh, humorist Andy Borowitz (the Borowitz Report) headlined his analysis: “Obama Risks Alienating Republicans By Using Facts; Radical Tactic Sparks Outrage.” It reads:

“Mr. Obama stirred controversy throughout the speech with his relentless references to facts, data, and things that have actually happened, all long considered the third rail of American politics.

As the President made reference to tax rates and unemployment numbers, as well as sixteen separate mentions of Osama bin Laden, congressional Republicans’ blood began to boil.

After the speech, a furious Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters, ‘It’s been a longstanding tradition in our politics not to use facts in a State of the Union Address, a tradition the President chose to ignore in an outrageous way tonight.  I won’t stand for it and the American people won’t stand for it.’

‘“We want to work with the President for the good of the American people,’ added House Speaker John Boehner.  ‘But he’s going to have to take facts off the table.  That’s a deal-breaker for us…'”