Last night, Yalies on campus and Americans across the country watched the State of the Union Address. Commentators predicted a speech that would turn around Obama’s presidency, already on the upswing after an emotional address in Tucson, Arizona. Some had hopes that the President would provide dignified leadership for a struggling nation, while others looked for bold, new policies to push the nation into the future. Unfortunately, what could have been a great step forward for Obama and America turned out to be a dud.
Obama began his speech with a call to American exceptionalism as an inspiration to greatness. In a direct reference to the pilgrim John Winthrop’s analogy that Massachusetts colony would be a “shining beacon on a hill,” Obama called the US a “light to the world.” We face a battle for supremacy, and we “need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build” our competition.” A strong, classic, three part imperative to greatness that everyone could get behind. So far, so good.
This inspiration soon fell into a quagmire of policy. In an attempt create more competitive America, Obama called for an overhaul of the nation’s technological and transportation infrastructure. He argued that, without these tools, our country would “lose” the future, and cede economic dominance to China or India. Most of the address focused on policies for research and development in clean energy and other emerging fields. Numbers such as “80 percent by 2015” or “70,000 jobs” flew, killing the passionate atmosphere.
Obama tried to define his speech by calling this a “Sputnik moment” invoking the image of Kennedy’s speech at the same podium that launched the space race. But, unlike JFK, Obama set lackluster goals. Instead of putting a man on the moon, Obama called for a new congressional website and greater high-speed Internet access around the country. While these capital improvements may be necessary for economic growth, they cannot galvanize the land-of-the-free into action.
Kennedy taught us that, in order to inspire, goals must be grand. In many ways, Republican Paul Ryan’s response to the State of the Union succeeded where Obama failed. Ryan touched on policy, but transitioned to principles. He talked about the budget, but then asked American’s deeper questions about the government’s purpose. The Republicans picked up the mantel of leadership last night and showed America how to dream.
After his pseudo-eulogy in Arizona, many said the rhetorical Barack of 2008 was back — the always passionate, sometimes inspirational prophet of the campaign trail. The man behind the podium last night couldn’t have been more different than the candidate of two years ago. He fumbled words, at one point saying “patients” when he really meant “parents.” At one point, he compared the country to an airplane, saying cuts to innovation were tantamount to removing its engine. The speechwriter who wrote that line should become an ex-staffer.
Obama’s tried to walk a bipartisan consensus tight-rope devoid of gutsy positions. He posed few policies that offended anyone in the chamber. When discussing the nation’s failing schools, he paid lip service to the fact bad teachers should not be rewarded, without calling the unions’ out for their obstruction of reform. When calling for a reform of Social Security and Medicare, no cuts could be made to existing (or future) benefits. Business and entrepreneurs should grow, but free trade should protect American jobs from competition. The budget should be balanced, the tax code reformed, and regulations cut while offending none.
I applaud the President for pointing out that “Sustaining the American Dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle.” Nothing could be truer. Unfortunately, Obama asked for no sacrifice from special interests or the American people. In contrast, when Kennedy ushered in the space-race, he acknowledged that, up front, the mission would mean higher taxes for all and a shared burden on the part of the nation.
This seeming balancing act — between reform and debt reduction on the one side and infrastructure development on the other — cannot hide the fact that Obama has called for a massive physical expansion of the federal government. In doing so, he misinterpreted the 2010 election, a clear mandate to shrink the state’s role in everyday life. Under his plan, 80 percent of all Americans would have access to high speed rail, more would have internet access and still more would use clean energy to light their homes — all built by the government. The voters in 2010 could not have been clearer: This kind of “investment” (yesterday’s “stimulus”) doesn’t work, and shouldn’t happen.
Last night was a continuation of a mediocre Presidency and a string of broken campaign promises. Obama had a chance to capitalize on the momentum of his Tucson speech and move forward. Instead, he set uninspiring, technocratic objectives, which will not galvanize the nation. He fell far short of an inspiring leader, just when America needs it most. Instead of a new audacity to hope, we got more resignation to failure.
Nathaniel Zelinsky is a sophomore in Davenport College.