Some Initial Thoughts on the SOTU

My first impression of Obama’s SOTU: it was an interesting combination of contradictory materials (transcript here).  Obama appealed to Lincoln:

“I’m a Democrat. But I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: That Government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.”

If he truly believes this, then he has a rather jaundiced view of what the American people can “do better by themselves,” given that the SOTU was full of calls for additional government intervention.

There were plenty of populist appeals (ahem, not class warfare) but like the populist appeals of the President’s new Progressive Era idol, Teddy Roosevelt, it was a thin populism that only makes the case for social engineering. Thus the president presented his “blueprint for an economy that’s built to last – an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and a renewal of American values.”

How should we respond to the President’s “blueprint”? Here is where the military metaphors come into play:

“At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they [America’s Armed Forces] exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.

Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example.”

Yes, just imagine. And I wonder who would serve as commander of this mission-focused nation, free of personal ambition and blind to their differences?

The military metaphors that provided bookends to the SOTU reminded me of that other Roosevelt who deployed them artfully in his first inaugural.

“if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife.

With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.”

Of course, the SOTU did not have the elegance of FDR’s address, but President Obama’s appeal to military unity and discipline combined with the claim that he is in possession of the “blueprint” to the future certainly draws attention back to 1933 (as do the attacks on the role of financiers in the old order and the threats of unilateral action should Congress not prove sufficiently compliant).

There were many other odd components that deserve comment, including the aggressive comments about trade, the statements about regulation, the lack of attention to the debt and the larger fiscal crisis, and the claims of the success of the auto bailout (I doubt that the disaster in Japan that destroyed Toyota’s supply chain was part of some “blueprint” for the auto industry).

In the end, the “blueprint” for the future will likely be stored on a shelf next to last year’s plans for “winning the future” as the 2012 elections pass into history.

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