Barack Obama delivered his first State of the Union address this week, a task which traditionally has required a president to reassure his public as much as to rouse them. Here, in his first State of the Union, we can sense Obama struggling to find his own voice as he wrestles with the competing demands of the performance and the office.
As well as laying out his policy priorities for his second year in office, the President once again projected the qualities that propelled him into office in 2008: he asserted his presidential authority and reasserted both his charisma and his outsider status. This latter will be vital if Democrats are going to mobilise successfully in an election year.
Obama also appealed to a sense of crisis in an effort to break Congress’s conventional stupor and propel its members to action. Whereas Obama is interested in reform, Congress sits more comfortably upon the status quo. As much as members of Congress may bob up and down like puppets, their strings are attached to many different masters — lobbyists, corporations, and, more occasionally, their constituents. Ritual moments, like the State of the Union address, can tend to obscure rather than to illuminate the true lines of power.
The Westminster — and Australian — equivalent to the State of the Union is the Speech from the Throne, in which the monarch or her representative lays out her government’s legislative agenda. Because our executive almost always controls the legislature, the Speech from the Throne is a mere formality. As the monarch has been so completely tamed by the party system and by democracy, to the extent that the prime minister both writes the speech and controls parliament, the Speech from the Throne has lost much of its drama and symbolic power.
This is not the case in the United States, where pundits search in the State of the Union address for hints about epic power struggles between presidents and Congress. And make no mistake, this President is engaged in a war with Congress — and his speech, with chastisements aimed at both parties, was peppered with allusions to this struggle. This has been the perhaps inevitable story of Obama’s first year in office.
Obama’s frustration with the Democrats was palpable, as he reminded them "that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills".
Turning his impatience to the Republicans, he signalled his likely response to their obstructionism by threatening to force upon them the joint ownership of the problems confronted by the nation, saying that if "60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well".
This year’s State of the Union address heralded not only a battle with Congress but also a war against history. That is, Obama’s war against the conventions and interests which have historically put the American political system into gridlock, a key plank of his campaign for the Oval Office. "The numbing weight of our politics" to which Obama referred in weary tones is nothing less than the numbing weight of history which, to quote Marx, weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. Nightmarish qualities were evident throughout as Obama reiterated his appeal for "something new" in near desperate terms.
One of Obama’s gifts as a campaigner was his ability to cast himself in the role of historical and political outsider, something which gave his campaign its Messianic edge. In American politics, with its culture of rebellious individualism, no status is more valuable than that of the outsider. Herein lies the real lesson of the Massachusetts upset in which Democrats lost "their" seat. The election of Scott Brown was not so much a victory for the GOP or Republican ideology as it was a victory for an outsider candidate against an establishment candidate.
This was the battle Obama won first against Clinton, and then against McCain. And it is the reason Sarah Palin — not in spite of but because of her gaffes — retains her popular appeal and is taken seriously as a potential threat to the presidency in 2012.
Obama also rebuked political pundits, who "fight the same tired battles that have dominated Washington for decades". For better or worse, Obama chose to play the bipartisan card in his first year in office, a move which was much criticised by his erstwhile supporters but demanded by independent voters. The result would seem at first glance to have been a lost opportunity for radical reform of healthcare — but in reality, centrist Democrats would never have allowed this through Congress.
This is why Obama has evoked a sense of crisis: to attempt once more to escape politics as usual and to break through the stultifying habits of political discourse.
The devices to which he turns are familiar: competitive nationalism and American exceptionalism. When the President declares, "I will not accept second place for America," he appeals to the fear that the nation will be left behind and defeated by others. This is the context for his alerting Americans that, "China’s not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany’s not waiting. India’s not waiting. These nations aren’t standing still. These nations aren’t playing for second place."
According to this narrative, American civilisation, and by extension global civilisation as we know it, is lurching towards its crisis of dissolution like all civilisations before it. Obama is trying to shake the inevitable trajectory of history, just as he shook it by winning the Democratic nomination and thus the presidency. But the extraordinary rhetoric is inevitably dulled by the prosaic solutions on offer.
Otherwise, the speech was dominated by a catalogue of promises: merely competent and incremental improvements ranging from the economy and health to financial reform, nuclear power and admitting gays and lesbians openly into the armed forces. The war in Iraq will end and that in Afghanistan will be pursued further.
Military and health costs, the two monsters that cripple the American state, will continue to increase. These are the costs that define America’s crisis but Obama baulks at reigning them in.
Ultimately, the image of Obama that emerged in this State of the Union address is of a great man catapulted to the leadership of a deeply faulted nation groaning under the weight of its past. Moments of rhetoric and bursts of achievement shine briefly but it is difficult to see how America’s trajectory can be changed in the radical ways which Obama may desire but is unable out of historical and political circumstance to deliver.
And at any rate, Republicans emboldened by their recent victories are in no mood to change. In lines tellingly written before Obama’s appeal for "something different", Bob McDonnell, the new Governor of Virginia responded with well-rehearsed rhetoric extolling "wise and frugal government". And so the debate returns to the familiar and the conventional. The battle lines have not changed and America, it seems, remains on a course determined by history rather than President Obama.
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