Political Animal


February 13, 2013 9:49 AM SOTU Day-After Thoughts

By Ed Kilgore

Well, don’t know about you, but I’m happy to stand by my initial reactions to the State of the Union Address. It was by no means perfect: there were several areas where the rhetoric wasn’t matched by what the president actually proposed to do (e.g., on election reform, where he’s proposing another bipartisan commission, when the solution, national election standards, is obvious to everybody), and a few less-than-skilful evasions (e.g., promising to make his administration “even more transparent” in its counter-terrorism efforts—hah!).

But all in all, it was a successful Big Speech, which left Republicans all but spluttering incoherently. The GOP’s response reminded me an awful lot of how they used to behave when Bill Clinton was president, which may not be a coincidence, since a lot of the policy content was right out of the unfulfilled Clinton playbook—something to remember before adjudging Obama’s current direction as drastically liberal. Indexing the minimum wage to inflation has been a consensus Democratic idea for at least two decades. The closely associated concept that public policies should produce after-tax income for working families at least above the federal poverty line was a Clinton staple, expressed exactly the way Obama did last night. Universal pre-K was something progressives debated—not the whether, but the how—in the 2000 presidential cycle. And the idea that made deficit hawks from both parties so apoplectic last night—that more aggressive government intervention in the health care marketplace is the actual key to “entitlement reform” and thus long-term deficit reduction—has been Obama’s line since before enactment of the Affordable Care Act.

I did wonder last night if Obama’s approach to the opposition—using the language of bipartisanship while articulating policies he knows full well Republicans will almost universally oppose—might be too subtle for either the consensus-seeking “center” of public opinion or the confrontation-hungy Democratic “base.” But the Republican response—both planned and unplanned—made that concern less urgent. By its spending-cuts-only demands within a deficit-reduction-only stance on fiscal and economic issues, the GOP made it easy for Obama to sound conciliatory without sacrificing partisan differentiation. This morning Bill Galston suggested Obama was “gambling his presidency” on an effort to force Republicans to change their positioning via the blunt instrument of public opinion (and ultimately electoral defeat). Before and after the State of the Union Address, Republicans left him little choice on that matter.

Anyone imagining there is some sort of “moderate Republicanism” in the wings that Democratic charity can vault into control of the GOP should watch Marco Rubio’s official response last night and pay attention to something other than his water-guzzling. This is the guy who was supposed to offer a “reformed” Republicanism with greater appeal than Paul Ryan’s Randian budget-cutting or Rand Paul’s unvarnished Tea Party extremism. Yet his speech was almost nothing other than a repetitive rejection of the power of the public sector to play any positive role in national life other than at the Pentagon.

I don’t know exactly where Obama’s speech leaves us. Yes, it got pretty good ratings in the snap polls. The reaction from Democrats indicates I may have been wrong to think he was being too conciliatory to the opposition. It’s more likely than ever that the sequester will go forward, followed by a government shutdown, unless (and this is possible) congressional Republicans decide just to defer all the fiscal conflicts until after the midterms. Obama will probably get his vote on a threadbare gun regulation bill. Immigration reform will slowly move towards enactment as Republicans try to convince their nativist wing it’s politically non-negotiable. Obamacare will be implemented, albeit unevenly thanks to GOP sabotage in Washington and in the states.

But anyone pining for a different trajectory, whether it was some magical consensus with an imaginary GOP, or an equally magical vanquishing of the partisan foe by sheer force of will, needs to realize this is the standoff we’ve been in since 2008 and will remain in at least until 2016. Obama’s dealing with it pretty well, all things considered. And last night’s speech was a better step forward than most.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • T2 on February 13, 2013 10:05 AM:

    For me, it wasn't so much what the president said as what Rubio said...I didnt watch it but have read most of his remarks......the same old GOP stuff Romney/Ryan got drubbed with.
    If this was the GOPs effort to put lipstick on a pig, it was a failure on two counts. One, substance and messaging, and Two, messenger. If Rubio is their "savior", the GOP needs to keep looking. But in what direction? Rand Paul? Sure.

  • c u n d gulag on February 13, 2013 10:16 AM:

    Ok, I've watched it now.

    President Obama could have been more realistic about what he wanted to achieve.
    Been more "bipartisany" and conciliatory.

    Instead, he took a gauntlet of some fairly progressive stuff (by early 21st Century standards, anyway), and threw it at the Republicans.

    He made them seem petty.
    And Boehner looked like he was trying to keep from barfing the entire SOTU!
    I bet he hit his hip-flask as soon as the camera's were off of him.

    And, who wrote Rubio's speech?
    He/she should be fired!

    And Rubio obviously watched Jindall's speech from a few years ago, and decided he liked what he saw.

    In his anti-government message, he talked about how government helped him with his college loan, and Medicare/Medicaid helped his family.

    And then came, "The Glug Heard 'Round the World!!!"

    He was so nervous, between all of the sweating and the rehydrating, I'm surprised he didn't pee-himself on national TV.

    OT - What's with the younger folks, their constant need for hydration, and the ubiquitous water bottles?

    How did we old-timers ever survive in the 60s and 70s when water was something you drank from a tap, a fountain, or a garden hose, and not some brand or status symbol you identified with, and carried around with you everywhere you went like it was the Nike swoosh on your sneakers?

    gOh, You drink... THAT!
    Tsk, tskc
    We people in the know, drink FRENCH Evian Water - not POLAND Spring.

  • jehrler on February 13, 2013 10:27 AM:

    Seems to me the standoff could end in 2014 vs. 2016, depending on just how out of sync the Rs remain and how much turnout from 2012 the Ds can keep.

    At any rate, I wouldn't right it off just yet.

  • stevio on February 13, 2013 10:46 AM:

    Appropriate that Rubio drank the water he was carrying for the rich GOP types. Obama's speech was filled with acid for the repugs who always amaze me when policy for the poor among us is illuminated and only dems stand and applaud like it's bad politics to help the less fortunate, or something. Oh, that's right, that's their whole political philosophy...

  • golack on February 13, 2013 11:26 AM:

    Couldn't watch all of Marco Rubio's response...a little too bizarre. I'm soo glad he didn't make any use of public school resources when growing up, that he never received any financial aid for college, and that he doesn't take any salary for his government work. Truly impressed that he, nor anyone in his family, ever had to see a doctor or take any medicine or take Social Security benefits, or use Medicare/Medicaid, etc. Sooo glad.

  • Vokoban on February 13, 2013 11:28 AM:

    Obviously being not a native speaker I might miss the subtle points in such a speech. But watching Boehner's face alone left me with the impression that he has some chewing ahead of him before he can swallow that bite.

    To me that counts as a great speech.

  • Vicente Fox on February 13, 2013 11:43 AM:

    Is it just me, or is Rubio's voice a really annoying pitch? That alone will keep him from ever being POTUS.

  • MikeW on February 13, 2013 1:38 PM:

    "I dont know exactly where Obamas speech leaves us."

    Same place we were the day before yesterday - with a completely dysfunctional Congress, a petulant bitter and backwards-looking GOP, and no real hope for reform in the near future.

    Mind you, I thought it was a good speech. Just totally irrelevant.

  • Yellow dog on February 13, 2013 3:47 PM:

    Obama was effective last night. Over the past 15 years, most SOTU addresses have been labored and dull, enlivened only by corny and forgettable "real people" moments. Somehow, the political theatre moments worked last night, even though the motif was not new. Seeing a woman of 102 years who had been asked to stand for hours to vote was bizarre, almost comical, but stirring. I saw her and thought Rosa Parks. That was an immediate emotional association, not a logical one. (Parks' fame did not come from a voting protest but from a public facilities protest.). Desiline Victor connects this moment to a lot of other moments in our national life, when intransigence and ill reason among the powerful led to perverse results for decent, ordinary people, like Rosa Parks and Desiline Victor. The speech worked when it showed current obstruction in this moral light. Obama was, in his nice reasonable way, portraying his opponents as bad citizens, with bad values and bad motives even more than bad ideas. (They hustle old ladies.). This was no technocratic message. As in the inaugural, Obama cast his opponents not as personal political foes but as opponents of progress, of decency, of reason, of discourse--in short, as opponents of the sound practice of citizenship. He made them into quacks and fakirs, unworthies. In the practice of politics, they are beyond precedent. In the goals of policy, they are beyond coherence and reason. They are on the wrong side of both history and tactics, choosing poor means in pursuit of ignoble ends.

    Will the interpreters of politics begin to accept what Obama is arguing--that the opposition lacks the moral and intellectual credibility to lead? That It has become unsound, cracked up, departed from the great traditions of citizenship? Will they remove the presumption of credibility that attaches to the GOP? Will they acknowledge that the party has come unmoored?

  • President Lindsay on February 13, 2013 4:50 PM:

    Obama's chance to break the stalemate and have a powerful second term would be to engineer a takeover of the House (and retain the senate) in 2014, no small feat especially because of historical apathy by Dem voters in mid-terms. What could accomplish it (a long shot, but...) would be if he would have thrown down the gauntlet last night and used his SOTU speech to propose a sweeping New Deal II program to revitalize our country and create millions and millions of new jobs. He could have explained very clearly how the economic travails in so many developed and developing countries around the world have created a situation in which people are willing to loan the USA money at essentially negative interest, and that short term deficits be damned taking advantage of this situation is absolutely the right thing to do to not only rebuild our infrastructure but juice our economy like nothing else. It's an easy enough argument to make because it's entirely true. Then Obama himself, and as many Congresspeople as he could muster, would take that plan on the road and blanket the country with speeches, all of which would serve to not only explain and re-explain why it would be a great thing for us but to put the Republicans in a box. Either they pass such legislation or get booted out in the mid-terms. Either way the country wins. Yes, it would be a bold stroke that would require total commitment and the willingness to use the bully pulpit like never before, but it could work and of course if it did Obama would be a legend in his own time. That was my SOTU fantasy. Too bad it didn't happen. Too bad for all of us.

  • jkl; on February 13, 2013 4:53 PM:

    President Obama's bemused way, his cool style throughout made for a great SOTU speech. I liked the clearly direct
    criticisms of the Republican House.

  • toowearyforoutrage on February 13, 2013 7:54 PM:


    I keep hearing folks say it wasn't Obama but the WaPo's Woodward says it was.
    Where's the contradicting documentation that it was someone else? We're the reality based community, so let's act like it.

    FWIW, the sequester is just like eh fiscal cliff.
    The budget cuts can be restored retroactively the day after they take effect. It's yet another phony crisis we're supposed to be soiling our shorts over.

    Again, I think the GOP has a tougher case. The military needs cutting badly and the GOP will be forced to defend keeping every dime despite winding down one war and the other getting put to be within 22 months.

    Yet another rollover Boehner has to look forward to.
    Why does the GOP lament the sequester so>? Cuz it makes them look really really bad so they want America to hate. it. I don't hate/fear it any more than the fiscal cliff which turned out to be a magnificent dud.