Wednesday, January 27, 2010

SOTU Night in America: Live-blogging the 2010 State of the Union address

(Updated frequently -- in real time. Scroll down.)

Alright, let's do this. We're about 20 minutes out, American Idol is in Dallas, and... well, I'm going to go make myself a drink.

But first...

Allow me to quote the editors of The New Republic:

How does this president handle a crisis? Thus far, the answer is not at all encouraging... Barack Obama faces a moment where his presidency just might collapse or, rather, risks heading into a wilderness where it would accomplish next to none of its ambitious goals.

And now, we have arrived at a point where we can take the ultimate measure of Barack Obama. For much of the health care debate, he has been a relative bystander. This stance may have been the right approach for various stretches of the legislative grind. But now, we must see his mettle. Is he capable of asserting his will? Can he use his vaunted powers of communication to explain the virtues of reform? He must take ownership of the process and strong-arm the House, so that it comes to its senses and passes the Senate's version of the bill; and he must strong-arm the Senate, so that it promises to improve the bill through the budget reconciliation process. If Democrats are worth anything as a party, they will rally around their president. As much as any other issue, health care reform is their raison d'etre. This is hardly an irremediable situation for Barack Obama. But, for the first time, we are nervous that he isn't up to the task.

I'm nervous, too, and I haven't been nervous about Obama since, well, since the lead-up to the Pennsylvania primary in April 2008, when Rev. Wright was all over the news, Hillary was hitting hard, and Obama seemed to be wilting a bit despite being well ahead in terms of delegates.

And now? Honestly, I'm not sure. And I'm not sure what to expect from him tonight. He's a great orator, no one denies that, but the question is whether he can put his rhetorical skills to proper use tonight. And what he needs to do is to take control, to the extent any president can, of the political situation in Washington, to set a new course and a new narrative that will allow him, and his party, to forge ahead with their policy objectives. In other words, what we need from Obama is genuine leadership, and he can show that tonight, in speech, in words that lay out a definitive course of action.

Health care reform must not be allowed to die -- for the sake of the president and his party, and, more importantly, for the sake of the many millions of uninsured and everyone else who suffers under this terrible system. Yet, as we write, Obama has not yet risen to meet this existential threat to his presidency. The response of his White House has been slow-footed, at best, and thoroughly confused by any objective measure. With so much anxiety pouring over the Democratic Party, only strong presidential leadership can salvage things. We haven't yet seen anything like that.

Obama is expected to focus a great deal of attention on the economy, and specifically on the job situation, tonight, and he ought to, given that elections are won and lost on pocketbook issues, and there are many other issues he'll need to address, including the war on terror, given the heightened threat, or perception of threat, after the failed Christmas underwear attack and the sense that Islamic jihadism will strike again soon, as well as climate change and renewable energy, but what I'll be listening for specifically is a commitment to pass meaningful health-care reform, a push to get done what is already well underway, with both houses of Congress already having passed a reform bill.

It's that "strong presidential leadership" on the politically most defining issue of the day that we need to see from Obama. Is he up to it? Yes. But I'm still nervous.

I suspect it will be a strong speech, but good rhetoric alone won't be enough.

More soon...


CNN has a preview here: "Citing a 'deficit of trust,' President Obama's first State of the Union address will urge Congress to erode the influence of special interests and work together to confront the nation's most pressing problems."

Oh yes, hopefully Obama will issue a strong response to that awful Supreme Court decision last week, the one that will turn American democracy into American corporatocracy.


And a call to repeal the military's bigoted "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy against gays? Yes, yes, yes. That would be fantastic. I just hope that's not the scrap (not that it's a scrap, but you know what I mean) he throws to progressives and liberals while the rest of the speech comes straight from the Evan Bayh centrist playbook, with all that crap about bipartisanship, which essentially means caving in to the Republicans, with a failure to push for any other major progressive or liberal objectives. (You know, he gives us an end to DADT, while on everything else -- health-care reform, the economy, the Afghan War, climate change -- he embraces the right or otherwise waters everything else down with endless compromise.)


Alright, it's 8:57. My drink of choice? Vodka. Canadian. From a distillery in Oakville, Ontario, just outside Toronto. (It's pretty good.) With raspberries. I was going to do scotch, but I feel like something really cold, straight out of the freezer.



9:00 pm -- Hey, look, it's Wolf Blitzer! Yes, I've chosen CNN, in HD, for tonight's spectacular.

And there's Rahm Emanuel, looking like he could break anyone's neck like a puny little twig. Shouldn't Obama get him to twist the necessary arms on Capitol Hill over health-care reform? Um, yeah.

9:02 pm -- And now it's Bill Bennett. I've said it before, I'll said it again, how the hell does this jackass get to spew his stupidity on TV?

What is this, a right-wing lovefest on CNN? I'm already pissed off.

9:04 pm -- Obama has apparently left "the holding area." And there he is... followed by Reid and Hoyer, and then... I see McConnell and Boner, er, Boehner, looking typically over-tanned. (No, the U.S. Congress is not characterized by an abundance of human excellence.)

9:09 pm -- That was a rather enthusiastic (and manly) handshake with Biden.

This post is already too long, and the address hasn't even started yet.

The vodka's good, though.

9:11 pm -- Is the state of the union strong? Is it? Is it? I'm on the edge of my seat. Come on, don't drag this out... tell us!

Pelosi looks... odd. Sad? Contemplative?

9:14 pm -- Good move to start with "the anxieties that are out there now." Connect, Obama, connect. Reach out to the American people in a way you haven't really done yet as president.

"Change has not come fast enough." Is is coming at all?

Good move, too, to focus on Washington dysfunction. But, please, no bullshit bipartisan talk.

9:18 pm -- "We all hated the bank bailout," Democrats and Republicans alike. "I hated it, you hated it, it was about as popular as a root canal." Very true. But nice to spin it as doing what is necessary but unpopular. And he's right. Without it, the economic situation would be much worse.

And now "a fee on the biggest banks." I like where this is going. Side with the American people against Wall Street and the oligarchs who run Big Finance.

Unemployment benefits. Tax cuts. "Let me repeat: We cut taxes." -- for working families, small business, etc. No applause from Republicans, and Obama nicely jokes about it. Boner smirks stupidly. Nice.

Republicans don't like anything Obama does, no matter what it is, and that's the lesson Obama should have learned by now. Trying to work with them is like banging your head against a wall. It won't work. And they have no interest in reciprocating, in negotiating in good faith, in seeking compromise. Look at them. What a pathetic bunch of losers.

9:24 pm -- There are success stories, signs of recovery, but... "Jobs must be out #1 priority in 2010."

Oh capitalism... a favourable mention of "America's businesses" gets a standing ovation. Come on, really? But I thought Obama was a socialist or something. Of course he isn't. Just listen to the speech. Elimination of capital gains tax on small business investment? So socialist! Again, Boner and Cantor and the rest of them just look stupid. This is centrist, mainstream stuff, an effort to strengthen American capitalism, not undermine it.

9:28 pm -- Clean energy... good.

So the Republicans won't applaud protecting American businesses and penalizing those that move overseas? Huh.

9:30 pm -- "A new foundation for long-term economic growth." I'm listening...

"Washington has been telling us to wait for decades... Meanwhile, China isn't waiting..." Obama's on fire. He's got the room. Totally. Even if Republicans sit on their hands and look like jerks.

9:34 pm -- Alternative energy: good for the economy, good for the environment. Oh, so Republicans get up off their feel for nuclear energy. And for domestic oil and gas development. Hilarious.

And a comprehensive energy and climate bill. There is it. One of the most important issues of our time.

Obama notes that there are some who disagree with the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming. He and Biden both smile. Rightly, he dismisses those deniers as morons -- not saying that, of course, but it's pretty clear. But he appeals to them by saying that leading on green energy will mean leading the global economy. Honestly, Republicans have no chance against this. Which is why they lie and lie and hide behind their propaganda and personal attacks.

9:41 pm -- I'm off to get more vodka.

I don't have much to say about Obama's comments on education. He's right. "In America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college."

9:43 pm -- Here it is: health-care reform. (Wait, the Republicans stood up?)

Obama really is awesome tonight. Not lofty rhetoric, but he's more personable than ever -- smiling, joking. A great way to begin discussing such a divisive issue.

And he begins to make the case for reform... reduce costs, reduce premiums, do away with the worst abuses of the insurance industry, bring down the deficit...

Leadership, Mr. President, leadership.

And he takes some of the blame for not explaining it well enough.

"I will not walk away from these Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber," speaking of those who don't have coverage or who will lose their coverage.

9:48 pm -- You know, I think the Republicans know he's got them. He just reached out to them by asking for other perspectives, other solutions. (Of course, they don't actually have anything substantive to offer.)

9:49 pm -- Now we're on to government spending? Okay, but what about health-care reform? No more on that?

And now he proposes "specific steps" to pay for the economic stimulus package. Ugh. The stimulus package wasn't big enough, and what America needs now is certainly not a spending freeze. I suppose it makes him look fiscally responsible, and so I suppose it's good politics, but it's not like the crisis is over yet.

9:54 pm -- Hey, Lieberman and Nelson are sitting next to each other. Hmmm.

Oh, just a thought. Shouldn't Obama at least mention the new iPad? I mean, that's the biggest news of the day, isn't it? (Kidding. Sort of.)

9:55 pm -- Obama doesn't even have to mention Bush. He's like an elephant in the room. He just has to talk about what he faced when he entered office, and to talk about those "eight years."

9:56 pm -- Here's the "deficit of trust" narrative. (Here in Canada, we call it "the democratic deficit" -- that's small-d "democratic.")

9:58 pm -- Good. He's going after last week's Supreme Court decision.

Okay, but this whole section seems like disparate elements strung together. Not enough on the "deficit of trust," not enough on special interests. I realize he doesn't have time to get into much detail, but he's not quite persuasive enough here.

(Oh, here's CNN's real-time piece on the speech.)

10:00 pm -- Okay, more on Washington dysfunction, "where every day is election day." And he points to a few senators with grudges who hold everything hostage -- a fully justifiable swipe at Lieberman?

"I'm trying to change the tone of our politics." Thankfully, he's realistic about what he can do. He isn't talking up some post-partisan utopia.

"Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it isn't leadership." Addressing Republicans, he's calling them out for pushing the filibuster, and the need for a supermajority, to get anything done, even as they refuse to help govern. Well done. Subtle, but pointed.

10:04 pm -- A bit on national security here, but no details yet. Still, good to go after Republicans, if not directly, for "schoolyard taunts."

There's Al Franken, behind the Joint Chiefs, nodding... It's still weird seeing him there in the Senate, though he seems to be doing a very good job.

A quick review of his record on national security -- war on terror, Afghanistan, Iraq, torture. On Iraq: "Make no mistake, this war is ending, and all our troops are coming home."

10:08 pm -- Support for veterans and military families. No one opposes that, right?

Man, I'm tired. It's a good speech, but these things do drag out, and they turn into laundry lists. (Although I do admire Obama's commitment to deal with nuclear proliferation.)

And I've finished my second vodka.

10:12 pm -- Human rights, standing on the side of human dignity. Well, what can I say?

He really needs to end with a flourish.

Ah... here it is... the repeal of DADT. "It's the right thing to do." Yes it is. And women getting equal pay for an equal day's work? Also the right thing.

10:15 pm -- Here's the flourish, Obama at his rhetorical best. Talking about American values, the loss of faith in America's "biggest institutions," doubt. "No wonder there's so much cynicism out there. No wonder there's so much disappointment." The room is silent, still.

"I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I could do it alone." Controversy and passion have been stirred, but of course they have. And he connects "doing what is hard" to "the dream of keeping this nation alive." Brilliant.

I need to quote this part in full once I have the transcript.

I'm amazed at how mesmerized the room seems to be. This is why so many of us love the man, why we fell in love with him back on the campaign trail in '08.

"We don't quit. I don't quit!"

That was an awesome finish to a speech that started strong, stayed strong, went flat a bit, and then recovered. Very, very impressive.

Not nearly enough on health-care reform, but maybe he said enough to send the right message to Congress, and specifically to his fellow Democrats, to work it out and get it done.

I'm going to avoid the pundits for the time being, I think. The reactions will no doubt be exactly what you'd expect them to be.

Again, what struck me was how Obama held his audience in the palm of his hand throughout much of the address. And Republicans, who were no doubt told when to applaud and when to stand up, didn't seem to know quote how to respond. He said much that appealed to them, and he reached out to them, but, as I said above, they seemed to know that they were beaten, that they have no chance against Obama when he's this effective. (Dana Bash reports no booing. And yet she's focusing on how Obama put Democrats in their place on the spending freeze. Please. Yes, he was addressing them, too, but for the most part he neutralized the other side, not his own.)

10:28 pm -- And here's Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, about to give the Republican response. Whatever.

I'll be back later with more. I need to go lie down for a bit.

11:51 pm -- You know what makes me happy? The Dallas Stars beat the Calgary Flames in a shootout. And why? Because I recently added Stars goalie Alex Auld to my fantasy hockey team, and he got the win.

Oh, that third vodka hit me hard.

11:52 pm -- Okay, here the transcript of Obama's address. Here's a bit from towards the end:

I campaigned on the promise of change –- change we can believe in, the slogan went. And right now, I know there are many Americans who aren't sure if they still believe we can change –- or that I can deliver it.

But remember this –- I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I could do it alone. Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That's just how it is.

Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths and pointing fingers. We can do what's necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what's best for the next generation.

But I also know this: If people had made that decision 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 200 years ago, we wouldn't be here tonight. The only reason we are here is because generations of Americans were unafraid to do what was hard; to do what was needed even when success was uncertain; to do what it took to keep the dream of this nation alive for their children and their grandchildren.

Our administration has had some political setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved. But I wake up every day knowing that they are nothing compared to the setbacks that families all across this country have faced this year. And what keeps me going -– what keeps me fighting -– is that despite all these setbacks, that spirit of determination and optimism, that fundamental decency that has always been at the core of the American people, that lives on.

Like I said... brilliant.

11:57 pm -- Oh, I found McConnell's response, delivered to a largely Republican audience, predictably banal, typical Republican pabulum. Like what he said about health-care reform:

All Americans agree, we need a health care system that is affordable, accessible, and high quality.

But most Americans do not want to turn over the best medical care system in the world to the federal government.

Republicans in Congress have offered legislation to reform healthcare, without shifting Medicaid costs to the states, without cutting Medicare, and without raising your taxes.

First, no one's talking about turning the system over to the government. This is fearmongering. The reform currently in Congress and backed by the president are market-oriented and limited in terms of how much government involvement there would be.

Second, Republicans haven't offered anything like a substantive alternative. Like the rest of the speech, it's a misleading, and indeed erroneous, talking point.

12:03 am -- Okay, that's it for me. Obama's address certainly could have been more aggressive in response to Republican opposition and obstructionism, as well as more supportive of health-care reform, but, on the whole, I thought it was extremely effective. Whether it shifts anything in Washington, or in public opinion, is another matter, but I do hope it encourages Democrats to forge ahead with health-care reform, to address jobs, and to move on with the rest of the key elements of the president's agenda, specifically with respect to energy and climate change.

I'll get to the reaction from the punditocracy and blogosphere tomorrow... er, later today.

Stay tuned for that, as well as for reactions from the co-bloggers.

Good night.

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  • Do you ever remember a State of the Union address where the minority party hissed and did everything but outright boo in the background. At least they didn't yell "liar" but still. The biggest eyebrow raiser for me was when none of the republicans stood up at the mention of penalizing companies who move overseas. That was a headscratcher.

    By Blogger Orbes, at 12:05 AM  

  • Sure, but I think Obama effectively silenced them for much of the speech. It's like they didn't quite know what to do. On issues where they should have sided with Obama, they remained reserved, as if they didn't want to give him credit for anything, clearly putting party before country.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 12:11 AM  

  • Michael

    Good job ... Obama blew it, on a shout-out to the base, by failing to mention, give a nod, to Howard Zinn, who passed away today


    By Blogger 13909 Antiques, at 12:47 AM  

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