Obama and the great unsaid


Outside of a presidential inauguration, nothing in the nation’s capital beats a State of the Union address for majesty and pageantry. It’s surprising, though, how few memorable lines have survived, from either the speeches or the written reports that some presidents chose to deliver.

James Monroe claimed hemispheric hegemony in 1823. Abraham Lincoln condemned slavery in 1862, warning that “the last best hope of earth” was at stake. Franklin Roosevelt enumerated the “Four Freedoms” in 1941. Gerald Ford had the guts in 1975 to say that “the state of the Union is not good.” Bill Clinton asserted in 1996 that “the era of big government is over,” though that didn’t survive his Republican successor.

Nothing that Barack Obama said Tuesday night is likely to survive the test of time, though his ringing “they deserve a vote” gun-victims litany raised the hair on more than a few necks.

The president’s speech was remarkable less for its rhetoric than for the breadth of his agenda. And it was remarkable for what was left unsaid.

The 6,500-word speech contained no fewer than 20 new “challenges,” “initiatives,” “programs,” “proposals” and “executive actions.” Then there were at least 15 restatements or reassertions of previously announced policies and policy goals. In the aggregate, they amount to an ambitious progressive agenda that aims to shift conversations away from austerity politics (it hasn’t worked in Europe) to tax reform and smarter spending.

It is an agenda that could keep Congress busy for at least four years. That is, if Congress ever got busy, which is some of what got left unsaid. Some examples:

Said: “Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour.”

Unsaid: The restaurant, hospitality and Chamber of Commerce lobbyists will lay siege to this like Grant at Vicksburg. It took the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., five years and his famous “Where does the greed stop?” speech to get the minimum wage raised from $5.15 to $7.25. “What is it about it that drives you Republicans crazy?” he screamed on the Senate floor in 2007. Whatever it was, it isn’t gone.

Said: “Tonight, we stand united in saluting the troops and civilians who sacrifice every day to protect us. Because of them, we can say with confidence that America will complete its mission in Afghanistan, and achieve our objective of defeating the core of al-Qaida. Already, we have brought home 33,000 of our brave servicemen and women.”

Unsaid: Did you notice how the word “core” got slipped in there? That’s because there is truly no way, short of posting 600,000 counterinsurgency troops there for years, to defeat al-Qaida in Afghanistan and there never was. And about that coming home part: Phil Bronstein reports in the new Esquire magazine that the Navy SEAL who double-tapped Osama bin Laden mustered out after 16 years and now his family’s health insurance is gone. Thanks for your service, pal.

Said: “Right now, there’s a bill in this Congress that would give every responsible homeowner in America the chance to save $3,000 a year by refinancing at today’s rates. Democrats and Republicans have supported it before. What are we waiting for?”

Unsaid: We’re waiting for the banks and mortgage lenders to give their OK, which could be a very long wait. That’s why Obama’s mortgage relief plans in 2009 and 2010 weren’t much help. Banks continue to have their way with Republicans and Democrats alike.

Said: “We are citizens. … It’s a word that … captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others.”

Unsaid: It was a lovely peroration, but many Americans have a different view of their obligations to other citizens and future generations. If there was any doubt, the rebuttal speeches Tuesday night by Republicans Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the Mitt Romney al Sud, and Rand Paul of Kentucky, the tea party’s designated driver, should have cleared it up.

Obama seems to realize there won’t be any grand bargains on spending and deficit problems with Republicans, and will deal with those issues on an ad-hoc basis. He surely realizes there won’t be a vote on basic gun law reforms because opponents fear the wrath both of the NRA and voters who want reform.

So he’ll attempt to ratchet up pressure for his positions with campaign-style events like the one Wednesday in North Carolina. Already he has transferred his campaign infrastructure to a 501(c)4 “social welfare” organization called Organizing for Action that continues to raise money. He has scheduled at least a dozen major fundraising events this year for Senate and House candidates in the 2014 election.

All of this may lack the pomp and circumstance of a State of the Union address, but if he pulls it off, it may be far more memorable.