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The Morning After: Reflections on the State of the Union

26/01/2011

After a few hours of sleep and a television tuned away from the major commentary, I want to take a step back and reflect on the President’s State of the Union address, as well as both the official Republican response from House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, and the “unofficial” response from Representative Michele Bachmann delivered on the Tea Party Express’s Web site. One note: I’ve refrained from reading others’ commentary on each address so far, because I want to express as pure a response as possible. However, the blogosphere has been kicking with updates since the first words were spoken and there are a multitude of perspectives to consider.

State of the Union. For me the most entertaining part of the SOTU address is always the entrance; those first ten minutes are the D.C. equivalent of a red carpet stint at a Hollywood awards show (in fact, someone did refer to the SOTU as the “Oscars for geeks”, and I agree). The crush of people is unavoidable as members of Congress and other guests clamor to pay homage to their allies and to play nice with their opponents, and for those few seconds of glory as the news networks pan the chamber.

The President’s speech can be considered in the same two categories that my elementary school teachers (thank you Miss Squires, wherever you are) used to grade my writing: content and composition. In terms of composition, of course, Mr. Obama shined. His oratorical strength is probably his greatest characteristic as a campaigner and a leader, and I would be surprised if there aren’t scientific studies proving that just listening to him speak can immediately put someone at ease.

Content, on the other hand, is more difficult to rate. On the plus side, the President was very clear about the issues we face as well as the accomplishments we have made so far. His points are difficult to counter on their face, because his delivery was so perfectly centrist without sounding contrived. I agree with his goals, even those I don’t think are achievable in the current political climate. He touched on the importance of improving our education system beyond the imperfect reforms of No Child Left Behind, and of providing a supportive atmosphere in which the younger generations can reach their full potential and once again be truly competitive with their contemporaries in other nations.

I wasn’t surprised to hear references to last year’s healthcare reform, or to last week’s Republican-led repeal vote of such in the House. I’m glad, though, that Mr. Obama brought up the latter in a light and amusing manner rather than calling out those Representatives who voted for it. It speaks to a true effort at tempering the political discourse, and makes him stand out as a true leader. Watching the Speaker’s face as the President laid out his goals for the year, though, was a reminder that no amount of on-camera cordiality can completely obscure the reality that today, it’s back to business as usual on the Hill — and that business is not always civil.

And that, friends, is the central conundrum of the night. Mr. Obama spoke of working together and putting aside differences, admitting that the divided Congress will fight fiercely for their beliefs but expressing the sincere hope that shared investment in the best interests of the country will bring the parties together for real improvement. It’s a noble, utopian and probably unrealistic ideal that I’m convinced will be even more of an uphill struggle than anybody is willing to acknowledge at the moment; after all, the Republicans themselves are divided between “mainstream” conservatives who are capable of the rational thinking required to achieve true progress, and the Tea Partiers of the far right whose polarizing and fallacy-based positions could prove harmful to any attempt at unity and collaboration.

“The state of our Union is strong.” Always, even at our weakest, we are strong. And while I’m naturally skeptical of any measurable progress on most of the President’s suggestions, I’m grateful for the reminder that our President is an innovator and for my own renewed faith in his ability to lead us well.

 

Representative Paul Ryan’s response. I think Representative Ryan started out very well, not only with his due attention to the Tucson shooting and recovering Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ8) but also with his endorsement of President Obama’s discussion of the budget and economy in the SOTU address. His well-crafted speech does justice to the Republican leadership’s decision to let their resident intellectual give the traditional rebuttal.

On the other hand, while I expected it I was still dismayed at Mr. Ryan’s inability to refrain from finger-pointing almost immediately after stating that “No one person or party is responsible for it.”

His numbers appear to be sound, but simply listing figures without examining (or expressing) the intent behind the stimulus spending or other spending increases as well as their effect (beyond merely saying “failed stimulus”) does a disservice to his colleagues by employing a reverse “ends justify the means” mentality in which he lambastes the process because it didn’t work. Also, he demeans his own credibility by ascribing the debt to “many presidents and…Congresses” and then turning around and spinning his own sonnets about all the bad Obama and Co. have done.

Then, he moves on to health care. This is all old territory: the Republicans disagree with the health care legislation, and Mr. Ryan is simply trotting out the same arguments against it that have so far still not been justified. The most amusing part to me is where he says “we will work to replace it with fiscally responsible, patient-centered reforms that will actually reduce costs and expand coverage.” I’m sorry, Mr. Ryan, but do you recall several discussions in which the CBO stated that a repeal of the current healthcare reform (that, you know, y’all VOTED TO REPEAL) would cost us upward of $3 trillion?

If you have a better plan then by all means I’d love to hear it, but repealing the current legislation without having that better plan ready to implement immediately means that you will effectively be screwing everyone who’s benefited from it: my grandmothers, for example, or my boyfriend who had to go back on his parents’ insurance because his boss is an idiot and let their insurance lapse… Admittedly the plan isn’t perfect, but rather than stamp your collective feet at it you should take the President’s offer to work together on it and move forward.

My biggest problem with Mr. Ryan’s speech is the feeling that he selectively absorbed and ignored different portions of the SOTU address, and that he chooses to selectively point fingers rather than man up and say “we are all the problem. We can all be the solution.” His logic is sound, however, and he exhibits refreshing signs of pragmatism — if he can translate those to a true bipartisan effort to revitalize our economy, then he could find a new fan in me. Otherwise, it’s all just party prattle.

 

Speaking of party prattle… Representative Bachmann has a pretty HD screen with a color-coded bar graph (you know, just in case you forgot which party was in charge when), but she seems to forget that correlation does not equal causation — and that the legacy of each administration typically carries over into the next.

As to her comments about “Obamacare”, I would love to send her a couple of books but instead I’ll simply say: the United States does not have the best healthcare in the world. I went for two and a half years without any sort of health coverage because I graduated from college and couldn’t find a job that would provide it. Oh, and the job I had was part time and didn’t give me enough money to afford health insurance in the “free market”…

I’m trying to commit to civil discourse, but I honestly feel dumber after having listened to this parody of a response. Rather than engaging with what the President (or what Representative Ryan) had to say in any sort of intellectual manner, Ms. Bachmann used the Tea Party platform to spew unsupported invective and lay the foundation for a campaign that she’s either already completed or is yet to begin. Just as the Republican leadership feared, Ms. Bachmann’s 90-degree turn from the path they are hoping to set (as laid out in Mr. Ryan’s well-poised statements) will very likely deepen the schism splitting the Right and make it difficult for them to work with Congressional Democrats in any meaningful manner. I can only hope that the “ignorance as political capital” movement ends soon, or else we’ll be on the (Tea Party) Express path to ruin. (Note: You can find the video of Ms. Bachmann’s remarks on YouTube, or the TPX Web site. I’m not comfortable linking it, but it’s out there.)

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