Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Dog that Didn't Bark, and other SOTU Thoughts

President Obama's first State of the Union (SOTU) was delivered last night. A few loose ends and random thoughts:

* A Return to Clinton-ism. Bill Clinton was famous for revising the text of his speeches at the last minute, even on the ride over from the White House to the Capitol. This President, who seemingly won't say "Thank You" without a teleprompter, has (heretofore) been more punctual.

But the embargoed text was not delivered to the cable networks 30 minutes before his speech (as promised, according to CNN's Wolf Blitzer.) And unlike previous years, where Members of Congress followed the speech in booklet form, no one was reading; instead they were listening -- with varying degrees of intensity.

And the length of the speech itself -- close to 75 minutes -- indicates that re-drafting was going on to the the last minute. (As Blaise Pascal once remarked, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.)

The lack of a prepared text (for Members, not the POTUS, obviously) meant that the Members were not 'prepared' for when the TV cameras would be focusing on them. Nor the Republicans, in particular, seem to know how or when to react to the various portions of the speech. (For example, the GOP side of the chamber, after the initial ovations during the introductions, seemingly did not stand and cheer for a single proposal or statement by the President until he called for "safe, clean nuclear power plants", which occurred almost half-way through the speech.)

* Joe Wilson II. The South Carolina Congressman who heckled the President during September's health care speech was nowhere to be seen. But stepping into the role, or perhaps auditioning for a larger role later, was Supreme Sam Alito, who responded to Obama's criticism of a recent Court decision but mouthing "That's Not True".

BTW, Obama vs. Alito debating the merits of Citizens United would be "Must See TV."

* The Dog that Didn't Bark. Since at least the Reagan era, it has been a tradition to recognize various Americans (and on occasion foreign dignitaries) in the First Lady's box overlooking the House chamber.) In 2002, newly-installed Afghan leader Hamid Karzai appeared. In 2004, Michigan grad Tom Brady served as a "visual prop" for President Bush's call to outlaw steroids.

Last night, President Obama recognized no one except for the First Lady and Jill Biden. (The cameras did focus on the Ambassador from Haiti when POTUS was discussing the earthquake.)

Although there appeared to be a number of "special guests" in the audience -- including at least according to CNN's Wolf Blitzer, members of the response team from the Fort Hood shooting -- this SOTU was not focused on personal symbolism.

* The (Almost) Missing Bark. At the end of the preoration, it is customary to report that "The state of the Union is strong..." or similar words

(A few randomly-selected examples: Bush 43 (2008) ("The state of our union will remain strong"); (2002) ("Yet the state of our Union has never been stronger"); Clinton (2000) ("The state of our Union is the strongest it has ever been"). Interestingly, the only non-use of the "union is strong" formulation that AP could find was in Bush 41's 1992 address, at the start of his failed re-election year.)

Obama incorporated the word "Union" issue three different times in his SOTU opening (including once in a bit of wordplay: "when the Union was turned back at Bull Run"), before concluding: "I have never been more hopeful about America's future than I am tonight. Despite our hardships, our union is strong."

* Enough with Virginia Governors
. Virginia sits just south of the Washington, the locale of 90% of the nation's political reporters. Virginia's electorate, with its combination of rural conservatives in the south and west, and yuppie urbanites in the north, supposedly mimics the country's as a whole. And perhaps most important, Virginia's Constitution forbids its Governors from standing for immediate re-election.

So, every four years, when a new Governor is elected in the Old Dominion State, the pundit class declares him (or her, presumably) a "new rising star" and revs up the "could-this-Governor-be-the-next-President" bandwagon.

(Since 1982, here is the list of Virginia Governors: Chuck Robb, Gerald Baliles, Douglas Wilder, George Allen, Jim Gilmore, Mark Warner, and Tim Kaine. Of these, only Baliles (and Kaine, who left office after Obama's election) refrained from either explicitly running, or attempting to run, for President. All six ended, um, poorly.)

Here's another theory: since the VA Governor's seat is always an 'open' one (i.e., no incumbent to defeat), that means that running a successful gubernatorial campaign in VA is actually a very poor predictor of how political talent will fare in a more traditional setting: with incumbents and re-election campaigns.

Anyways, the latest "new rising star" Bob McDonnell was given the opportunity to respond to the SOTU last night. Although he bested last year's speaker, LA Governor Bobby Jindal, that was not a high bar: Jindal's performance was compared (unfavorably) to that of Kenneth the Page on 30 Rock.

But when even FNC's Charles Krauthammer described your oratorical performance as "workman-like", that may be a sign that your star is rising a bit slower than you might like.

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