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My Take on SOTU

After seven hours of downloading, I finally got to watch the State of the Union Address. After that much effort, I felt obliged to record my comments as they happened, thinking I might live-blog it three days late. Considering that a chronology would require you to either re-watch the speech or vaguely surmise context, though, I decided instead to present them topically and add a few notes.

Distractions

Until last weeks ago, I assumed I was about the only American who found Barack Obama’s speaking style simply annoying. Then I had a chat about him with a Chinese student. It turns out I’m the only person in the world who finds Barack Obama’s speaking style annoying.Watching this speech reminded me why. Each phrase—of his speeches—is spoken—as if it is—it’s—own—sentence—worthy of—Bartlett’s. Each phrase also gets a falling tone, a vapid gesture (most often the left-handed pinch-point) reverting to folded hands, and a smug nod. Clunky. Pretentious. Annoying.

But something miraculous happened during this speech. Occasionally, he started talking in full sentences and with standard tones and rhythms. It turns out he’s conversant in normal English. I actually liked his style in parts.

Distractions other than the President

I’ve had my share of time onstage behind a speaker, so I know it’s hard. Pelosi did too. She was so self-concious that people were going to see her at the beginning she went out of her way to look engaged and engaging. She actually looked friendly—almost human. But that gradually gave way to making faces at the audience and then a glazed stare. Biden was tall enough to keep his face out of the picture most of the time, but he did randomly rub his chest for a few minutes.

Michelle Obama scares me.

I know audience response is the only way to express feelings, so I don’t blame Boehner for raising his hand or Alito for mouthing words any more than everyone else for obviously talking and making faces to could get camera time and making a point.

That said, where did the cheering come from? I thought I was watching a Presidential address, but at times it sounded more like a high school football game. I even got a distinct “U-S-A, U-S-A”.

I wonder if the recorder was trying to record the cheers, because he was definitely punching keys during an extended ovation.

Notable ovations

Happy with himself“The true engine of job creation in this country will always be America’s businesses.” Standing O. Seriously? That’s what we call a truism, people. It doesn’t really deserve an ovation.

“All this [activity that caused the economic collapse and subsequent deficit] was before I walked in the door.” Applause. They seriously applauded the budget deficit, since Barack said it wasn’t his fault. And just to make sure, the President paused and made faces until he got sufficient response. That, my friends, was disgraceful all the way around.

We’ll get rid of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Huge, drawn-out ovation. We’ll get equal pay for women. Moderate applause.

Things he said that I liked:

He broached the bailout early and effectively in argument, rhetoric, and demeanor.

A focus on jobs is a good call. A really good call. I especially like one that pays attention to infrastructure needs. Sounds a little Rooseveltian, but it’s worthy.

“I know the Senate will [pass a jobs bill]. They will. They will.” I found this particularly effective. He was applying some pressure, while displaying support for the Senate he had already referred to as “gridlocked”. (Sadly, it was the last positive gesture toward political opponents.)

He was pretty heavy-handed with the lobbyists. While they are Washington’s most bipartisan whipping boys, I hope he actually does something about them.

Things he said that I didn’t like:

About those letter-writing children. Do kids really write letters asking the President why they have to move and how to afford homes and education and health care (and if they do, does he really read them every night)? ‘Cause those were either fabricated Obama talking points or some freakishly informed kids.

“[T]he best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.” Not really sure I agree, but coming from Columbia and Harvard, he obviously values world-class education. “So we’re going to improve community colleges and offer $10,000 to families trying to send kids to college.” (my paraphrase) Yup, world-class.

Anyone else pick up on the countless distinctions between himself and the American people? It started early as he told about how Americans faced a tough year, but “they” were resilient and “they” were staying busy and “they” were working hard.

“We won’t quit. I won’t quit.” Quite a way to finish a speech when you’re a President who already feels the need to deny a Messiah complex.

Things he didn’t say, but said:

If you really want to play a dominant part in the world, China, you have to join it. (Future trading partners have to “play by the rules”.)

Republican Senators, you’re the minority. Go away. (“If the Republican leadership is going to insist that sixty votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town—a supermajority [thanks, Mr. Webster]—then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well.”)

Democratic Senators, let’s ignore everyone else and do whatever we want. (“Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades[.]”)

Things he said, but didn’t say:

America will double its exports over the next five years. (How, you ask? By finding new, developing markets.)

My exports plan will create two million jobs. (That exports plan he doesn’t really have. Ironically, that’s the same wildly unreliable number of jobs he claims to have created with his stimulus package.)

Things he said that didn’t make sense:

I’m not sure, but it certainly sounded as if he repeated the numbers from his famously inaccurate website to track job creation. I’d call that both deceitful and stupid. But that’s just me.

“We can’t afford another so-called economic expansion like the one from the last decade—what some call ‘the lost decade’.” Who, exactly? I’ve read a lot about the economy lately, and I’ve never heard that. Even from the most depressing pundits.

The CBO says the health [insurance] reform bill will reduce the deficit by one trillion dollars in two decades? Say it with me, Joe: “You lie!”

The Republicans’ response to deficits would be to make “fewer investments in people”—by giving tax cuts. To people.

Health care reform has been in progress for the last “century”?

Ways he contradicted himself:

He’s all about transparency. But the Supreme Court ruling that lets corporations make political advertisements with their names on them instead of doing it through a PAC is a problem.

“We could argue about who’s to blame for [lack of unity], but I’m not interested in re-litigating the past.” Other than when he just spent the last half hour blaming Republicans and Bush for all our problems.

“I will not give up on trying to change the tone of our politics.” “Democrats, let’s rock. Republicans, go home and die. [paraphrase—see ‘Things He Didn’t Say, But Said’ for the direct quotes])”

Summary

His agenda is worthwhile. His speaking style was lighter—almost relaxed and engaging at times. His rhetorical vision was grand, generous and participatory. His message was spiteful, dismissive and partisan. Despite my personal distaste for his delivery, I recognize that he has inspired millions to act in a way that might realize his vision. We’d be a lot better off if he could inspire himself to act in a way that might accomplish his vision.


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14 Comments
January 1, 1970 (8:00 am)

Wow! I loved reading that. I love the truth and humor in it. You aren't the only one who finds Obama's speaking style annoying!

January 30, 2010 (6:13 am)

Hey, thanks. I feel a little more secure in my discontent.

January 31, 2010 (12:11 pm)

“Michelle Obama scares me.” It’s those chiseled biceps, right?
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/08/opinion/08dowd.html

February 1, 2010 (10:54 pm)

@RuthAnn: No, not so much. It’s more the scowl that’s only coaxed off after 10 seconds of standing ovation. Maybe Pres O was right–“she gets nervous”–but that’s still frightening. Though chiseled biceps add force to the scowl, for sure.

February 3, 2010 (2:17 am)

@Jess: I'm happy to get your response to a post; I'm disappointed it's thisone. I'm not sure what made my post so distasteful to you. I didn't knockany of his policies, just parts of his speech, so I'm not sure why you thinkI'm blaming him for Washington's problems. Nor do I understand why I'm wrongto get distracted by speaking style that bothers me, just as you're notwrong to point out writing style that bothers you.And on that note, I intentially 'publish' my writing to get feedback thatwill improve it. I'll happily take advice. I'd prefer it was in person too,but as face-to-face time is rather infeasible, I freely accept comments with inherent distance.

February 3, 2010 (12:09 am)

Yes, it’s such a surprise that a broken system which has been allowed to and even encourage to persist for consecutive decades has produced a situation that hasn’t been fixed in the first year of a presidential term.
Few presidents, let alone world leaders, have been enjoyable to listen to. Despite whether one finds his speaking voice listener-friendly or not should not distract from the massive responsibility and task he has at hand. I find it petty to focus on such issues. Especially when I would use the words "Clunky. Pretentious. Annoying." to describe these notes.
And, I say this only because this is a discussion we would have face-to-face. I hope the distance, both in time and miles, doesn't make this sound more severe than it's intended.

February 3, 2010 (10:00 am)

I agree that my comments were less than fully argued. That was intentional, if unwise, in order to keep it a single post instead of a series. This wasn't my attempt to argue politics; it was just a string of reactions, more or less as they happened. Hence the mixing of minor observations with nods to substantive criticisms and the forgoing of a unifying thesis. And a lot of those observations occurred in the context of an ongoing internal critique of current politics. I'd love to discuss those critiques, but I don't think either of is looking for that here. And if you stream the wedding, I'll not only watch, I'll dress up and propose a toast!

February 3, 2010 (4:08 pm)

Yes, it's such a surprise that a broken system which has been allowed to and even encourage to persist for consecutive decades has produced a situation that hasn't been fixed in the first year of a presidential term.Few presidents, let alone world leaders, have been enjoyable to listen to. Despite whether one finds his speaking voice listener-friendly or not should not distract from the massive responsibility and task he has at hand. I find it petty to focus on such issues. Especially when I would use the words "Clunky. Pretentious. Annoying." to describe these notes.And, I say this only because this is a discussion we would have face-to-face. I hope the distance, both in time and miles, doesn't make this sound more severe than it's intended.

February 3, 2010 (10:00 am)

@Jess: I'm happy to get your response to a post; I'm disappointed it's thisone. I'm not sure what made my post so distasteful to you. I didn't knockany of his policies, just parts of his speech, so I'm not sure why you thinkI'm blaming him for Washington's problems. Nor do I understand why I'm wrongto get distracted by speaking style that bothers me, just as you're notwrong to point out writing style that bothers you.And on that note, I intentially 'publish' my writing to get feedback thatwill improve it. I'll happily take advice. I'd prefer it was in person too,but as face-to-face time is rather infeasible, I freely accept comments with inherent distance.

February 3, 2010 (1:09 pm)

Oh, believe me, I rarely fully support any presidential policies and Obama is no an exception to that. So, I don't feel inclined to jump all over people simply for disagreeing with or attacking his policies. I just felt like some of your points were a bit of a reach and lacked foundation; I guess they felt like a little of a cheap shot. And when I got to the end, I wasn't sure what the main point I was supposed to walk away with was, except that his speaking style annoys you, which isn't much of an opinion/critique. That's probably why my initial response was focused on defending that issue. _____________By the way, we should stream Josh's wedding live for you! =)

February 3, 2010 (2:12 pm)

I agree that my comments were less than fully argued. That was intentional, if unwise, in order to keep it a single post instead of a series. This wasn't my attempt to argue politics; it was just a string of reactions, more or less as they happened. Hence the mixing of minor observations with nods to substantive criticisms and the forgoing of a unifying thesis. And a lot of those observations occurred in the context of an ongoing internal critique of current politics. I'd love to discuss those critiques, but I don't think either of is looking for that here.And if you stream the wedding, I'll not only watch, I'll dress up and propose a toast!

February 3, 2010 (4:08 pm)

I have to agree slightly with jessica here. Although it was a very well written argument it left me with the same feeling you got from the president. A bit pretentious and smug. The annoyance you got from the president seemed to cloud the overall argument. If the article was from an unbiased point of view on Obama's speech then I'm afraid it failed. The theme seemed to be highlighted by resentment. However, it becomes much more effective if it is meant to be for a target audience. I agree with many of your points and disagree with a few others. I will not break down each one because I am not interested in debating politics. I rather comment on the writing which was superb. I am jealous and you may sense hints of resentment in my response. Ha ha. I hope all is well with you Justin. I look forward to reading more of your posts. Take care,-Jon

February 6, 2010 (1:11 am)

Jon, good to hear from you, man–especially when you're so generous towardmy writing. For the record, I wasn't really trying to be objective, but then again neither was I trying to be smug. I think I may have tried to put toomany different ideas into a single post and undercut the efficacy of thewhole. Thanks for the feedback. Anyway, I'm rather enjoying life now andhope you are too. Sorry I can't actually get onto Facebook to connect more directly, but I'll take what I can get.

February 7, 2010 (11:13 pm)
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