A Perfunctory Performance

Paul Greenberg
|
Posted: Jan 27, 2011 1:35 PM

"He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."

--Article II, Section 3, U.S. Constitution

"I have noticed that a politician always has a special halo around him, due to the simple fact that he holds a particular office. It has nothing to do whether he is good politician or a complete fool; the position itself lends that person a special aura."

--Vaclav Havel, Czech playwright and president

There comes a time in just about every American president's tenure when his rhetoric must slip into the perfunctory. Only the great presidents and only when they are facing great crises -- a Washington, Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt -- may be able to avoid that kind of rhetorical slippage.

But the perfunctory can be a kind of relief, for it indicates that the crisis is easing. Yet the president must always act, and certainly speak, as if he were in command of events rather than events in command of him. It's almost a duty of the office, and presidents forget it at their and their country's peril. See the sad examples of Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, who were unable to hide their sense of defeat, malaise or whatever the elevated term is for contagious depression.

A president must be a happy warrior, especially when the country isn't happy. That has become especially necessary since the Republic became a mass, televised and internetted democracy. Ronald Reagan, another great leader, had a point when he said he didn't understand how anyone could hope to be president, or at least an effective one, without some training in the theatrical arts. Which helps explain his success: To be great, a president must act greatly, and speak grandly. He must master the American mythos, which can be as corny as a B movie. And yet it has proven exceptionally true in this, yes, exceptional nation.

But there does come a time, usually in the middle of a president's first term, perhaps after the almost customary course correction following his party's setback in midterm elections, when the temptation is to just go through the motions, to deliver a patchwork State of the Union address, and only pretend to be in command.

Watching the ceremonies attendant upon the Chinese president's visit to ours in Washington, an observer had to be struck by how these two representatives of great, ever restless nations had to appear great even if they weren't. Their words and smiles and instantaneously forgettable prose, whether autocratically stiff or artificially casual, left little impression a day later or even an hour later. Except a vague memory of two little boys dressed in grown-up clothes and delivering grown-up platitudes.

Such is the job of a president when no crisis is evident (never fear -- one will arise soon enough) and business is, thank goodness, slow. Perfunctory can be a relief. And yet the pressure remains, at least on an American president, to speak boldly of change, for change is the atmosphere in which America, a synonym for hope, lives. Preferably transformative change, to use the political scientists' banality-of-the-day. For Americans can stand almost anything except standing still. So our president must appear always in motion, leading, vigorous as Jack Kennedy looked even if his back always hurt. That's when the order goes out to the White House speechwriters: one quart of eloquence by next Tuesday.

And so We the People get to be addressed at least once a presidential term as if we were all simpletons. It is a fine thing to present ideas simply, but not if they're just simplifications. And phony ones at that. Tuesday night, the president promised to cut spending while proposing more of it. Did he think we wouldn't notice?

Delivering on schedule, the president gave a yawning nation a platitude a minute. I counted them, or tried to before sleep set in: "The future is ours to win. ... But we have more work to do. ... We should have no illusions about the work ahead of us. ... None of this is easy. ... All of it will take time. ... The future lies ahead of us." All right, I made up that last one, but it would have fit right in. This year's State of the Union was less an address than a series of soundbites in search of a theme.

It is in the constitutional nature of the State of the Union that it be an occasion on which a president reads a legislative laundry list to Congress, for he must "recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." A State of the Union has to be something on the order of a balance sheet -- but should never sound like it. This one did, though unfortunately it wasn't nearly as specific.

For vague example, the president spoke about increasing the number of college graduates in the country, but not about how well they would be educated, or how thoughtful they would prove as citizens.

In the hour of words, words, words our president laid on us Tuesday night, there seemed a curious absence of any need to address the fact hovering over that great chamber Tuesday night: that he had been handed a vote of No Confidence by the American people just weeks ago.

A natural like Bill Clinton would have responded to that political reality, or at least pretended to. "The era of big government is over," that president declared after his midterm wake-up call. He was wrong, and how, but at least he was responding, instinctively, effectively, to political reality. Can anyone say that of this president?

There was one moment of Reaganesque inspiration at the end of Barack Obama's speech when he told an inspiring story and summed up the American mythos: "We do big things." But the president's general response to what he called our generation's Sputnik moment was not another Apollo mission but something on the scale of a solar shingle.

No wonder the dry-as-dust Republican response, courtesy of Rep. Paul Ryan of little Janesville, Wis., came like a recognition of the truth, however mundane. It was a bean counter's response -- about as lackluster as your doctor's saying, "You know, it's really time you went on a diet." But after the president's collection of cliches, shiny as a box of tinsel, it came like a moment of refreshing honesty.