In the old days there was a certain protocol to rural correspondence in India, owed almost certainly to the fact that many villagers, illiterate themselves, would have a professional letter-writer write their letters for them. Every communication, whether conveying the birth of a child or the loss of an elder, carried the same structural lilt: Each would begin with an elaborate greeting. Then came a detailed listing of everyone in the letter writer’s family – he is well, she is well, they are well, we are all well. Following which an equally comprehensive inquiry as to the well being of the recipient and his loved ones from close and afar. Slipped in somewhere amidships was the payload: I am in urgent need. A sea of troubles has befallen me. Please send me five hundred rupees without fail by return of post.
Similar are the trappings that go with the State of the Union address: The Made-for-TV entrance by the president, the catwalk to the podium shaking hands and pecking cheeks along the way (a kiss if you are Joe Lieberman), the ascent to the rostrum, the exchange of pleasantries with the Speaker and the Vice President before turning to the audience for a standing ovation.
Then the speech itself with its own subpattern: We have many challenges but we shall overcome them (applause)… Americans always have(more applause)… I want to do this, that and the other, but will need the cooperation of this chamber (applause from half the audience)…I want to share with you the story of X whom I met in a small town in Alabama, of Y who did such and such a deed, and of Z who wrote to me — please stand up (fulsome applause)… Our thoughts at this moment are with our brave men and women of the armed forces serving in countries A, B, C,…(long applause). Ladies and gentlemen, the path ahead is steep, but with everyone working together, we will cut the national deficit, provide quality education for everyone, affordable health care for all, cut oil imports, make the economy boom, vanquish our enemies and be the hope of the world once more. God bless you all, and God bless the United States of America (Prolonged applause). At which point the TV analysts take over to offer insights into who clapped, on which punchline, for how long, and what each might portend.
The main difference between the villager’s letter and the president’s address is that the former, having to pay from his own pocket to have his letter written, thought twice before sending one unless he really had something to convey. The whole point of the state of the union, on the other hand, seems to be to speak for an hour without conveying too much [see 1].
At the end of his elegantly phrased and superbly delivered speech, what did Barack Obama convey?
Iraq – we will withdraw completely (but in 19 months, and with 50000 troops left behind, according to reports). Bush tax cuts — we don’t like ’em, but we’ll wait to let them expire next year as scheduled. Raising the social security cap? I must have missed it if he mentioned it. Charter schools – yes. The conventional inveighing against ‘protectionism’ – very much present, doubly reinforced by the coming appointement of free trader Gary Locke as Commerce Secretary. The problem of illegal immigration? Of the coming population ‘surge’? Not a word. The days of corporate irresponsibility were over, thundered the president. OK, but how were we going to punish the malefactors? By going after their assets? No. Sending them to jail? Nope. How then? By biting our tongue and giving the same guys more money (but this time, by golly, we would watch ’em!). And about going after all the lawbreakers of the Bush administration? Ah, sorry I asked, I forgot we are all bipartisans now.
If Barack Obama wanted to make clear that his administration was a true break from the past, he could have begun by apologizing to the people of Iraq. He could have sought the forgiveness of the American people for their government illegally spying on them. Instead of merely decrying spending on obsolete weapons systems from the Cold War days, he could have pointed out the obsolete mentality of the Cold War and announced a slashing of the Pentagon budget. Also troubling were the stated motivations. Could such a gifted speaker not bring himself to declare that decent health care was the birthright of every American? Instead it was needed… because otherwise we would break the budget. Just as we should be educated so we may get a job in tomorrow’s economy, not so that we might be better citizens today. Commerce, not politics, is still the driving force.
About the only significant new initiative to my mind was the promise to reveal the full cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But which cost, Mr. President, and to whom? Yesterday the Baghdad Museum reopened, minus many of the looted artifacts, treasures of all mankind, destroyed or vanished forever. When the Museum was ravished in the wake of the American Occupation, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed it as “stuff happens”. As someone wrote once, the true value of a book has never been paid, only the cost of its printing. Cynics are said to be those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. In the speech Obama dismissed some of his critics as being cynical. When his second address to the nation (the first being the inaugural) also remains silent on the war crime that is the Iraq invasion, who is the cynic?
Over the past quarter century essentially the same state of the union speech has been given albeit in different styles– folksy (Reagan), goofy (Bush Sr.), empathetic (Clinton), mostly clueless (Bush Jr.). Tonight Barack Obama added a new style to this list. The term “Imperial Presidency” should now perhaps be supplemented by “Professorial Presidency”. President Obama is the nation’s new schoolmaster. This mindset was made even clearer the day before at the end of his Fiscal Responsibility Summit, when he called upon members of his audience in a manner reminiscent of a teacher calling upon children in a grade school class to stand and deliver by turns, “John…”, “Susan…”, “Max…”, “Kent…”, “Eric…”. Only he was addressing members of the US Congress, and in an official and public setting. I kept wishing at least one of them would respond with a “Thank you, Barack…” But so ingrained is servility in that “co-equal branch” that each one of them began with “Mr. President”.
With Obama turning Mwalimu, it is only apt that the reputed rising star delivering the Republican response should come across as a schoolboy straining every nerve to impress his teacher in a class presentation. Governor Bobby Jindal bore the overall aspect of a Dan Quayle who could spell potato. His chief point was to say that Government is bad. His example to make his point…its performance during Hurricane Katrina! . Was this the “Republican” response or the Republican reminder? As Sarah Palin might say, “Thanks but no thanks.”
If you must know the real state of the union, read Paul Craig Roberts’ superb summation, How the Economy was Lost . Neither Obama nor Jindal addressed the issue Roberts raises — free trade — a chief reason for the unraveling of the union’s health. Indeed on this issue they both seem supremely united to stay the course. To paraphrase American Express, “Bipartisanship has its downsides”.
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of his other writings can be found on indogram (http://www.indogram.com?centerpiece=gs-327&city=bay).
The purpose of a president, wrote Douglas Adams in Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy, is “is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it”.
Swahili for teacher, most famously used as a title for for Julius Nyerere of Tanzania.
The joke goes something like this: Cop stops speeding car. Husband is driving. Cop says, “Do you know what speed you were doing?” “70?” asks the man. Wife leans across and says, “Don’t listen to him, officer. He’s drunk.”
How the Economy was Lost (http://www.counterpunch.com/roberts02242009.html).