January 25, 2012

I did a dumb thing. It cost me the inspiration.

Before watching Barack Obama’s State of the Union address I went back and looked at some of Bill Clinton’s. Affordable health care for all. Schools that prepare every child to succeed in the 21st century. Big, new investments in R&D and infrastructure. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m for all these things, too. But when presidents say we won’t reach these goals in one year, or even in one decade, they’re not kidding.

So I was poised to be jaded. Usually on SOTU day, I’m ready for uplift. I’m a sucker for the civic ritual. I want to believe. But Tuesday night I tuned in pre-deflated and skeptical.

The first thing I thought was: What happened to “winning the future”? That was last year’s product. Remember all the stuff we were going to do to win the future? Affordable health care for all. Schools that prepare every child to succeed in the 21st century. Big, new investments in R&D and infrastructure.

Did that not sell? Did we “win” already, and I missed it? Well, whatever. The marketing gurus clearly decided it was time for a new, improved package. Now it’s an economy “built to last.” A blueprint for one, no less. Here’s betting that phrase won’t last to the Democratic convention. It’ll vanish into the ether, along with “winning the future” and your missing sock in the dryer.

In reality, the speech was built to blast. To blast Mitt Romney, that is. And it laid the groundwork well in this regard. Extreme inequality is a scourge. Joseph had his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Mitt has his Amazing Low Effective Tax Rate. Plus indefensible plans to lower taxes for the top further. This, when we’re headed toward what Mitch Daniels rightly calls grave fiscal danger. Romney is the perfect poster boy for extreme inequality.

It’s important to address. It may suffice to win the election. It won’t begin to renew the country.

The Roman historian Livy once noted that the people could bear neither their ills nor their cures.

I think about that line a lot these days.

The State of the Union is the best snapshot we’ll have for now of what the president thinks he should to say to win in November. Seen that way, it’s a mirror held up to the rest of us. Elections, as the political pros will tell you, are about showing how a candidate connects with what we already believe. Campaigns are the last time you want to try to change voters’ minds about anything, they say.

So what does Barack Obama think we think?

He thinks we think the system is rigged against average folks (he’s right).

He thinks we admire the military and see soldiers offering a potential model for the spirit that could move the nation forward (his use of the SEALS mission was both shrewd and moving).

He thinks we want a pep talk. But “America is back!” was the speech’s falsest note.

When 25 million of us who want full-time work can’t find it, America is hardly back.

But here’s the bigger problem. What if American renewal (as opposed to the president’s reelection) depends on Americans changing their minds about some big things?

What if, for instance, we’d have to not just admire the military’s spirit of service and teamwork from a distance but institute universal national service of some kind to make that spirit real?

What if we’d have to do things light-years more ambitious than the current boundaries of debate if we’re going to have affordable health care for all and schools that prepare every child to succeed, et c. — and not just hear about these pretty goals again in some State of the Union, circa 2025?

What if the return of the manufacturing jobs the president is cheering won’t make much difference when the jobs coming back pay $13 or $15 an hour — and so won’t be consistent with a middle class standard of living unless government does more to cover health care and pension costs?

Who is going to try to change people’s minds about all this?

If the president won’t try, and the Republicans don’t care, whose job is it?

Matt Miller, a co-host of public radio’s “Left, Right & Center,” writes a weekly online column for The Post. His e-mail address is mattino2@gmail.com