Guy Benson, the political director here at Townhall.com, tweeted “That was a shallow, callow campaign speech masquerading as something important. Truly awful.” That tweet was retweeted by friends and strangers across the county again and again as it so completely and accurately summed up the president’s remarks as to need no improvement or additional commentary.
(Guy’s twitter handle is @guypbenson, and if you aren’t following him, you should be. If you don’t know what that means, you should learn. Twitter has changed American politics and commentary thoroughly, and to refuse to join the communications revolution there is like refusing to listen to FDR on the radio in the ‘30s.)
The president’s speech was particularly jarring to me as an hour before he spoke I had taped an interview with Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, and one of the most thoughtful and knowledgeable observers of Islamist extremism in the country if not the world.
Wright is a man of the left, but serious and informed, eager to actually convey information and engage serious questions. The transcript of my interview with him is here. We talked about serious issues and the big decisions ahead of the country and the world when it came to the war on terror and the Arab Spring.
The day before the president’s speech I had been honored to have former Vice President Dick Cheney in my studio for a long conversation about his new, best-selling and fascinating memoir, In My Time. The transcript of that conversation is here.
Cheney is of course one of the most famous conservatives alive, as serious and as informed as anyone who has participated in politics over the past 40 years, and a fine writer as well. We spoke not just about some of the important events and controversies of his long, significant career, but also about the future of the war, the maintenance of the country’s defenses, and the choices facing the American people.
These two interviews with serious, accomplished and significant individuals –one from the left and one from the right—provided a sharp contrast to the president’s almost juvenile rhetoric. The president’s speech was so tendentious, so simplistic and so over the top that I almost immediately dispensed with playing it uninterrupted for my radio audience, choosing instead to leaven it with the NFL feed and sound clips from various movies, like “Squirrel!” from the film “Up.”
If the president refuses to engage the country or his political opposition seriously, then the country should revoke the presumption that the president deserves a serious hearing.
The speech was a joke, and the man who gave it is perilously close to becoming one as well. NBC’s Chuck Todd sounded the alarm for the president the day before the big speech. Only “44 percent approve of the job he’s doing,” Todd reported, “an all time low of his presidency.” “But a more important number that our pollsters say is in there is this idea that this is a long-term setback for him or a short-term one,” Todd continued. “54% said long-term,” Todd concluded. “Our pollsters are concerned that’s [the] kind of numbers you have when the public starts to give up on a president as a problem solver.” Put aside Todd’s slip of the tongue which some on the right have hit him on for suggesting that NBC’s pollsters are worried that the president’s appeal has faded. What matters is what those pollsters detected, which is that the public has tuned Obama out, turned him off, and having done so will simply refuse to believe that anything he says is backed up by seriousness of purpose or considered economic theory. Thursday’s night speech was a desperate attempt to stop the political bleeding, but to have accomplished that mission it would have had to be serious in tone and substance. Instead it was the sort of 7th-grade rhetoric that diminishes the president and the Congress that had to pretend it was other than a campaign speech set-up. Serious people exist on the left and the right in this country, but none of them appear to have the president’s ear, or control of his teleprompter. As we approach the tenth anniversary of the most serious day in the country’s recent history, it is troubling that the president seems incapable of thinking about anything except slogans, and those of the most hackneyed sort.