Nevertheless, people keep framing this bitterly born election season as part of the reality genre. ABC kicked off its broadcast of President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night with the graphics and language that would accompany a reality-style showdown, in which a long rumored comeback (that would be the president’s) finally takes center stage. ABC started with grainy images of the Republicans attacking the president’s record.
“Can he rally our country and our government in the middle of an election year?” the narrator wondered in reality’s unmistakable tone of hype, boxing rings, movie trailers. Keywords flashed across the screen — programming for airheads. “Now! Tonight . . . ”
But the Obama who spoke for an hour-plus Tuesday was still the grown-up, nobly uninterested in entertainment and touching on far too many bullet points that tested a viewer’s remaining slivers of attention span.
It was a good speech. “A great speech,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton assured the president when it was over, overheard on camera. The speech reached the length of some of the epic addresses her husband used to give in the 1990s.
Drone has dual meanings now, and the president droned. We know that Obama gives good speeches. But we also know, three years in, that some of this president’s most impressive moments on television (whether by “SOTU” or in one of his exasperated acts of oratory that accompany a political standoff) have a way of fading too quickly in the distance. His sound bites can look great on paper when the embargoed text lands in our BlackBerrys, and it will even sound fine in the moment and then . . . the speech fades, never to be requoted beyond the news cycle. It’s a strange failure in someone so naturally gifted with the essential elements of the spotlight and the microphone.
Still, this was the speech meant to predicate all the campaigning ahead (read: TV appearances and interviews and stumps), the reelection Obama must now embark on. In some ways, these are always the most anticipated SOTUs, the first appeal for a renewed relationship between a president and the electorate. The last time we needed to be charmed this way was by President George W. Bush, in 2004.
A viewer’s overwhelming impression Tuesday night is that of a president who can, for the most part, claim more credit than he will ever get from even his sanest critics: Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors lives; the troops are home from Iraq; ghastly unemployment numbers are abating — or many of the unemployed finally vanished from our statistical periphery. Some of the things are working some of the time. Whatever he’s done, it’s somehow never enough.
As his speech of many thousands of words wore on, the president embarked on his “Blueprint for an America Built to Last.” It sounded mostly like a lot of work to do, bills to draft and pass. It’s the sort of thing that makes every Xerox machine on the Hill wheeze with anxiety, far too ambitious for a Congress that deplores finished business.
Given a curious lack of luster, the Twittersphere and other modern-day equivalents of the applause-o-meter went to work on the usual cues and memorable scenes. Sour-faced House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), for example. Or the uplifting final act of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), leaving office, who would be anyone’s definition of a tough cookie. Noted by CNN’s Dana Bash in a live tweet: “Bipartisanship: Jeff flake is helping giffords stand for potus applause lines — even when most repubs aren’t clapping. #sotu.” (This was quickly followed by the observation: “Irony is if gabby giffords hadn’t been shot, she may be running against Jeff flake right now for senate. #sotu.”)
As expected, Obama’s best work was achieved by walking us once again across the precarious rope bridge of class divide. “We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. What’s at stake aren’t Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. And we have to reclaim them.”
Just look at how rich the rich are. Just look at Warren Buffett’s kempt-looking secretary up there in the seats of honor with the first lady. Just look at her tax rate, and now look at Buffett’s. Is this the American ideal? “Now, you can call this class warfare all you want,” the president said. “But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.”
But there again, you’re tempted to look at the whole thing as a reality show — only now it’s not just the GOP field and a “Survivor” allegory. Now there are 300 million contestants in an episode of “Wipeout,” all still fantasizing about the moment they’ll become rich.
“We don’t begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it. When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get a tax break I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference — like a senior on a fixed income, or a student trying to get through school, or a family trying to make ends meet. That’s not right. Americans know that’s not right.”
That’s his hope, anyhow.