How to sum up the president's speech Tuesday night? It's not easy, since the president himself didn't. It seemed to have no focus, no single theme, no unifying thread. It was the political equivalent of a long shopping list composed by a not very well-organized househusband. The warp and woof weren't so much interwoven as thrown together in no particular pattern that left no particular impression, except to make the evening drag on approximately forever. ("Is it over yet?") It seemed like midnight when it was still the shank of the evening.
After the speech, the commentators called on to discuss it on television in their usual oh-so-deep way, the legion of Charlie Roses and Sean Hannitys out there in cyberspace, seemed to be stifling yawns between their Profound Observations and the kind of witticisms that aren't. Even the professionally serious, the kind of nerds whose boredom threshold is normally a mile high, seemed a little tempted by ennui but, alas, not enough to just shut up and go away.
Whenever anything of remote interest appeared on a distant horizon of his text, the president seemed to have an immediate response: change the subject. His signature accomplishment, aka Obamacare, got barely a mention -- other than a misleading reference to how wonderfully it was working. Surely not even Mr. Obama, an intelligent man, can believe that.
Instead, all the president's efforts to efface his signature from his Signature Accomplishment having failed so far, he, yes, changed the subject. With just a lick and not even a promise of improvement. As if to say we'd all wasted enough time on this post-mortem and it was time to Move On.
At that point, a flickering old black-and-white image of another president's State of the Union address -- Richard Nixon's last -- appeared in the dim recesses of our wandering attention. ("One year of Watergate is enough!" --R. Nixon, 1974.) He would resign seven months later. Whenever a CEO, whether of a government, a corporation, a university or any other entity that owes the public an accounting, declares that enough has been said/investigated/exposed where this topic is concerned, Innocent Observer can be confident it hasn't been.
If there was anything memorable about this year's State of the Union, maybe it was what wasn't. What was missing? Maybe it was that intangible essence another president -- George Herbert Walker Bush -- called "the vision thing." Leave it to a president who didn't have much vision to identify it in three typically vague words. And as the prophet warned, where there is no vision, the people perish. If there was a vision somewhere in this president's wasteland of words Tuesday night going on into Wednesday morning, maybe it was the president's bemoaning the inequality of American life, which he keeps insisting is growing.
Never mind that the statistics, those tricky reflections of the factual, don't back him up. According to the Congressional Budget Office, income inequality in the United States may be slightly higher than the average for the past 30 years, but it remains less than it was during, say, the last couple of years of the Clinton administration, if that matters. And it doesn't.
The CBO adds that, according to its Progressivity Index, the U.S. tax code remains as progressive as at any time during those last same 30 years. And that, as of 2006, the federal government's tax-and-spending policies combined have managed to redistribute $1.2 trillion in income from the 40 percent of younger, richer Americans to the bottom 60 percent of younger, poorer ones. And, yes, the top 1 percent of earners in this country still pays a larger share of the federal income tax than the bottom 90 percent combined. As for the elusive but revered concept in this country called Social Mobility, the IRS reports that its data, collected between 1999 and 2007, still show that Americans can move up remarkably fast. And move down the same way.
But what's all that to a president who prefers anecdotage to numbers? Ever since Tocqueville summed up all of American politics as a constant tug between the equal but opposite drives for liberty and equality, there have always been politicians/demagogues who want to champion one at the expense of the other. There will always be plenty of Americans who feel their talent, labor and genius aren't sufficiently recognized and rewarded, and they're the natural prey of the separate but equally ambitious Barack Obamas and Ted Cruzes of American politics.
Tuesday night, Mr. Obama was the epitome of the chief executive who makes a shambles of policy, whether health care or foreign affairs, and calls it a Signature Achievement. It was Tacitus who had a chief of the freedom-loving Caledonians (the Scots don't seem to have changed much) say of the Romans, they make a desolation and call it peace. This president makes a desolation and calls it Progressive.
There were so many things missing from this year's State of the Union, an exercise in small ball when it proposed anything much at all, that it's not easy to identify the biggest gap. A vision for the future? A stamp of personal responsibility, a reference to the national destiny? You know, the kind of words that are more than words, like those of FDR or Ronald Reagan in their time.
As the president droned on, there was no sense of the Rendezvous with Destiny that Franklin Roosevelt invoked for his generation, and which would meet it soon enough, at home and abroad.
Maybe there was no sustaining vision of the future in this president's speech because he seemed to have none of the past. What ever happened to that shining City upon a Hill the Puritans -- and Ronald Reagan long after -- still strove for? As when the Gipper remembered, dreamed and spoke like this:
"... I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it and see it still...."
So do many of us. Still. And so do countless other Americans. And countless others in the world who want to be. What happened to that stirring vision? Was there even a trace of it in the speech and ordeal our selfie-in-chief treated us to last, never-ending Tuesday night? It may have been called a State of the Union address, but it seemed mainly about the state of himself, his administration, his executive orders, and his limited little plans for a nation once without limits.
Even when he told Congress he would bypass it to rule by fiat -- excuse me, executive order -- his actual decrees sounded piddling: a new retirement savings plan offered through the federal government, or a raise in the minumum wage for federal employees. Even when he plays the fascist, this president sounds small-bore. If the rest of his speech had any ideas, they were warmed-over ones he'd failed to see to completion before.
To sum it up: All drift, no real direction.