Thursday, January 27, 2011

Conducting Electricity

commentary on 
The State of the Union Address

The Media likes to keep us separated.

Once a year, the highest elected official in our elaborate, ugly-beautiful government gives a speech to the whole of the US Congress-- and to all Americans. The goal of this official: to tell us all how it's going in America.

On Tuesday, President Obama gave his second State of the Union speech. The pundits have been at it for a day and a half, parsing and slicing his words, “explaining” what POTUS meant. There's plenty of praise and criticism for the speech; most of what you'll read and hear about the speech says less about the President's words than it does about the person giving the opinion.

The majority of the media outlets has one goal above all goals: selling advertising. Fox, MSNBC, NY Times, Time, CNN-- they are interested in getting you to tune in to them. That's fine; making profit is the goal of any business. But the pundits are not rewarded with the lion's share of viewers for being balanced. The media does best (in viewership) when they are dispensing hot, sexy, or controversial news.

We live in the world of constant spin. It's not because we all don't care about the truth. It's just that fair analysis doesn't sell as well or as fast as sexy analysis. It's a simple thing. News is entertainment. News is what happens between those small movies called commercials. And the news wants to sell you your favorite brand and flavor of news-- whatever that may be.

Therefore, if you don't read or watch the entirety of the State of Union address, then you will likely get soundbites from an organization that is more interested in getting you to tune in than to tell you what was actually said.  You'll get a targeted version, a bespoke newscast custom made for you and your demographic.

Don't do that with this speech.  The message of this speech will likely be completely overlooked by the majority of the major media. 

The Middle Passage
The President gave a needle-threading pep talk to the entire country. As been his tendency, Obama angered and thrilled people on both sides of the aisle. He spoke mostly about helping industry and business through tax breaks and subsidies. He called for the private sector to lead America. He sounded as pro-business as a President can-- and as right wing as he has ever sounded.

But he also talked about how oil companies don't deserve government money anymore, how the US will pull out of Afghanistan this summer, and how gay people deserve equal rights. He talked about how health care reform was here to stay and that the old fights about it would be left behind. Here he was as bleeding-heart left as a President can be.

He talked about improving consumer protections and being fair to immigrant students and workers. He talked about shrinking and simplifying the corporate tax code but he also talked about repealing the Bush tax cuts for the rich. He called for competition between schools and teachers even as he pledged more money to schools.

Take the speech in its totality and you get what is becoming recognizable as vintage Obama:  stuff that pisses off everyone who is a partisan.  Think about it.  Those of us who are most disappointed in him, those of us who most distrust him, those of us who think he's a liar or immigrant or muslim-- are partisans.  He's appealing to the middle.  He's speaking, not to one half or the other, but to as many of us as he can.

The Grown-Up In the Room
Most impressively in the address, President Obama modeled civil conversation. He spoke, as he has before, how a man like himself could become President only in land that celebrates the ideals of hope and progress. He reminded us, once again, of how impressive it was that our nation actually elected him; that we finally smashed that boundary of race for our highest office.

And then the President did something amazing. 

He equated his own success with that of the new Speaker of the House, his Republican opponent John Boehner. Obama dignified one of the greatest critics of his own health care reform by celebrating Boehner's own humble beginnings of “sweeping the floor” in his family's bar.

Why is this such a big deal? Because Boehner has been attacking Obama for entirety of the President's term. Last October, Boehner said "I believe that the healthcare bill that was enacted by the current Congress will kill jobs in America, ruin the best healthcare system in the world, and bankrupt our country.” When Boehner won in November 2010, he told ABC, “there seems to be some denial on the part of the president and other Democratic leaders of the message that was sent by the American people.” On CBS' 60 Minutes, Boehner said that the President shows him “disrespect,” distancing himself from Obama by claiming they “come from different backgrounds.”

The President didn't fight back.  Instead, he reached out.

In this unifying State of the Union, the President is attempting to build momentum for this lagging Union-- and he's trying to find it in the middle. He's working against the partisans on both sides who, frankly, do not want a middle solution. I don't think that the media wants a moderate environment.

The media knows that people love to be entertained by extreme politics.  

And this is why you need to get the media out of the way when you think about this State of the Union speech. Read it and watch it on your own.  Don't let the sound bites do the work for you.

President Obama isn't just speaking about new programs or his political agenda. He's trying to pull us together.

Finding His Ground
Likely, the President will get average marks in the media and by fellow politicians. I'm guessing "B's and C's" It was no barn-burner or roof-raiser. Some say that was because members of Congress, for the first time in generations, did not sit in party sections. Dems and Republicans sat together, diminishing the partisan cheering that often allows for long ovations (and jeers like last year's “you lie!”)

I think it was a nearly perfect pitch for this moment, a poem for the strength of the middle road. Furthermore, the President may have finally solidified his doctrine and found his voice as the leader of the country.

This State of the Union tells us most about Obama as a leader.

He's not the reincarnation of JFK's charisma and wit. He's not Abraham Lincoln's successor as a strategic, war-time Unifier. He's not even the telegenic reiteration of Reagan, whose smile and wit could launch a thousand ships.  To find Obama's historical parallel, we have to leave the Oval Office and go to a colonial printshop. 

We find a man who bucked the media of his day and started his own paper, writing under a pseudonym in order to get people to think. Here's a scientist and a free thinker who flouted conventional wisdom in the name of reason and progress.

We find Benjamin Franklin, practical and charming, who saw his young nation struggling for identity and stability.  He was surrounded by stolid iconoclasts, men who staked their lives on their convictions.   We might as well call the Founders 'The Great Arguers."  Hamilton and Adams hated each other; Madison didn't really like anybody.  Jefferson fought with himself while Washington did everything he could to stay apolitical.  These great men sparred bravely far more than fairly.  And Franklin, while not above the fray, knew that the intensity of the argument could destroy the future of the Republic. 

Franklin told his bickering patriot friends, some of whom were so rancorous they dueled to settle disputes, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.

President Obama sees the locked doors between us as more dangerous than obstacles in front of us. Like Franklin, he identifies our diversity as our greatest strength-- but unity as our only salvation.

Undaunted by lightning strikes, standing in a storm, Obama is trying a key.

Sources for Speaker Boehner's comments:


  1. Written beautifully. Sparked a lot of thought about what leadership really is, and how good leaders are able to stand strongly with a foot on either side of the divide- hardly for indecisiveness or lack of opinion, but because they are able to rise above, recognize the best in each, and persevere determinedly toward stitching a seam that will connect these parts & pieces. Well done.

  2. Obama's a Zen Master, isn't he? When he's hit, he moves into the punch (see: Bohner and your astute analysis of Obama's words). Were that we all were as courageous and centered. What Obama did was to get in front of the parade. He did not take the pulse of the parade and then jump to the front. Like I said: the man rocks! You do too, Kleba.

  3. Nicely written, and even handed about both sides, which is what we need more of today. Obama is trying to be the President for all Americans. I appreciate his efforts. Yet the importance of American voter perception needs to be separated from the more thorney issues that face our country. The media's major contribution, as I see it, is their attachment to the political frame of Left/right/center. They insist that America's interests play like a football game between right/left teams, with Obama, Pelosi, Boener, Ryan, et al, trying to get, hold, and grab the ball. To this end, we line up wearing our team's logo, and we exist inside our own side show led by the cult of personality, as we purchase their sponsors stuff. But America is in a bigger jam, as layed out in the Evergreen article I am sending along. We don't manufacture stuff in this country anymore and we cannot simply buy houses and insurance from each other and keep thriving in this world. Our kids are scoring 34th in the world's math, and people are out of work. 30% of mortgages are underwater. College students are reported this week to be emotionally unhealthy because of the economic stresses with student loans, low job prospects, and their parent's money problems. A Federal Commission published this week that the major American banks and stock houses were too big and unregulated and they directly caused the world wide financial debacle. Multinational corporations pull wealth out of USA and hire overseas. Many Americans are upset believing nothing will probably come of these findings because the banks and corporations are protected by power, in both parties. If "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" , this country needs big changes. Many of us believe that our country is both hypnotized by the side shows and preoccupied with survival issues. We need political will to make tough choices, and to stand up to power. That isn't easy, and the truth gets organized and sold by the partisans. One side says get the debt down as soon as possible and the other side says you have to spend money to make money. Who is right?