Subtext in the State of the Union (and its responses)

You can learn a lot about how our leaders (in both parties) view us by observing how they try to manipulate us.


Once upon a time, state of the union addresses contained major policy initiatives, like when President Johnson announced the War on Poverty in 1964. But nobody does that any more, especially not in a gridlocked era where nothing is going to get through Congress anyway. 21st-century state of the union speeches (and opposing-party responses) are about politics rather than policy. They’re about moving public opinion, not moving the country.

So you might ask, “Why watch?” And there’s an answer: You can learn a lot about how our leaders (in both parties) view us by observing how they try to manipulate us. When they try to scare us, they reveal what they think we’re afraid of. When they reassure us, they reveal what they think we’re insecure about. When they try to be likeable, they reveal what they think we like. They emphasize issues where they feel strong and avoid issues they have no answers for.

They have spent months polling and testing in front of focus groups. Each has carefully crafted the message it believes will best appeal to its part of the public. Listen hard, and you can tell what part of the public they see as their own.

President Obama. The best way to watch the SOTU is via the White House’s enhanced video. (Here’s their transcript.) You get the same video everyone else uses, plus elucidating slides.

President Obama focused on two themes: inequality (which I explore in “Occupying the State of the Union“) and the dysfunctionality of Congress. Clearly he thinks Congress’ unpopularity works to his advantage:

For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government. It’s an important debate – one that dates back to our very founding. But when that debate prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy – when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States – then we are not doing right by the American people.

I know Ted Cruz comes from an alternate timeline in which Obama and Harry Reid shut down the government and provoked the debt-ceiling crisis, but here’s all you need to know about that: Democrats applauded the President at this point, while Republicans sat on their hands. They all knew who he was calling to account.

The two themes came together in Obama’s executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors, something he can do as federal CEO without congressional action. I hadn’t realized the full political import of this until Rachel Maddow pointed it out: Obama has put every executive in the country on the spot. Are governors going to raise the minimum wage for state contractors? Mayors for city contractors? (Yes in St. Louis.) I’ll bet the sound bite (at the 33-minute mark) tested really well:

No one who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty.

Any time the words Obama and executive order appear in the same news story, Republicans start yelling “tyranny”, as if no previous president issued executive orders. (Sunday Paul Ryan described the Obama administration as “increasingly lawless“.)

Clearly, they have identified a set of voters ready to believe this. In reality, though, Obama has been relatively hesitant about executive orders, issuing fewer of them than other recent presidents. He also has put forward no new theories of executive power, such as President Bush’s sweeping notion of the unitary executive.

Republican response. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington gave the official Republican SOTU response (text & video).

I thought Rodgers’ put forward a likeable image. (The conservative American Spectator protested that her “real message” was “PLEASE LIKE ME”.)  She expressed admirable sympathies, but presented little of substance to back up her good intentions. She talked about working to “empower people … to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be”, but the policies behind those words implement the same old Republican wealth-trickles-down-from-the-rich ideas.

A larger question was: Why her? She’s not a major player in the Republican leadership. She’s not a rising star they’re grooming for bigger things. Nothing about her record in Congress picks her out as the ideal person to speak to these particular issues. But she’s a woman and Republicans want to put a token female face on camera to counter the war-on-women meme.

As Ian Haney Lopez says in Dog Whistle Politics:

The right slams affirmative action for making distinctions on the basis of race, even as it has developed its own perverse form of affirmative action, consciously selecting nonwhite faces to front its agenda.

Rodgers is the female version of Bobby Jindal or Marco Rubio, but without the presidential speculation: Republicans can’t possibly be sexist. Look! They have a woman speaking for them.

But the war on women rages on, no matter who’s in front of the camera. The House Republican majority passed the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, whose purpose is to get private health insurance plans to drop abortion coverage. Last week I pointed to its draconian limitations on rape exceptions.

Rodgers’ talk was also noteworthy for invoking yet another bogus ObamaCare horror story. As Paul Krugman put it:

So was this the best story Ms. McMorris Rodgers could come up with? The answer, probably, is yes, since just about every tale of health reform horror the G.O.P. has tried to peddle has similarly fallen apart once the details were revealed.

Tea Party response. Mike Lee (text, video) did a good job countering the Tea Party’s image as the dangerous lunatics who almost pushed the United States into default last October. The over-arching metaphor of his talk was the journey from Boston (the Boston Tea Party in 1773) to Philadelphia (the Constitution in 1787).

Now, as in 1773, Americans have had it with our out-of-touch national government. But if all we do is protest, our Boston Tea Party moment will occupy little more than a footnote in our history. Hopefully our leaders, reformers and citizens will join the journey from Boston to Philadelphia – from protest to progress. Together we can march forward and take the road that leads to the kind of government we do want.

He mentioned several positive Tea Party proposals in Congress without detailing what they would do. But the mere possibility of “the kind of government we do want” is a significant shift in Tea Party rhetoric. I’ll be interested to see if it catches on inside the Tea Party, or if it’s just for export.

Rand Paul’s response. Rand Paul’s talk was mostly a collection of offensive stereotypes and right-wing fantasies. He used the story of black conservative columnist Star Parker to smear welfare recipients:

She was 23 when she quit her job at the L.A. Times so she could go on welfare. By collecting $465 a month, plus Food Stamps, and by getting a part-time that paid cash under the table, she could rent a nice apartment and earn far more money than working an honest 40-hour week. Later, she said, she had no trouble dropping her daughter off at a government-funded day-care center, selling some free medical vouchers to buy drugs, and hanging out at the beach all afternoon.

It’s Ronald Reagan’s Cadillac-driving welfare queen all over again, or Fox News’ lobster-loving Food Stamp surfer. Are those stories supposed to be typical of the people helped by government anti-poverty programs? Paul seems to think so. After putting a happy ending on Parker’s story — she could only get a real job and climb out of poverty after she gave up her “dependence” on government assistance — Paul says:

I want Star Parker’s story to be the rule, not the exception.

But how is that even possible unless her original situation is the rule? Unless welfare recipients in general are lying, cheating, drug-using, child-neglecting blacks who can get honest jobs whenever they want? I’m sure that’s exactly what Paul’s target audience wants to believe, but is it true? Like Reagan, Paul presents no evidence beyond the anecdote.

Another taffy-pull stretching of the truth was Paul’s claim that Obama has “spent more than a trillion dollars on make-work government jobs”. Actually, that number is somewhere close to zero. For example, a big chunk of the $800 billion stimulus was tax cuts. Some of the stimulus’ other big-ticket items sent money to the states so that revenue shortfalls wouldn’t force them to lay off teachers, and paid for repairs to roads and bridges.

So the next time you drop your kid off at public school or drive across an old bridge, remember that Rand Paul thinks teaching or keeping bridges from falling down are “make-work government jobs”.

Thuggery. The weirdest story of the night was New York Republican Rep. Michael Grimm threatening to throw a reporter “off this fucking balcony” (i.e., the Capitol balcony) for asking a question he didn’t want to answer. “I’ll break you in half,” Grimm warned.

Rudeness to the President. Well, at least this year nobody yelled “You lie!” during the speech, as Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina did in 2009. However, Texas Congressman Randy Webber tweeted:

On floor of house waitin on “Kommandant-In-Chef”… the Socialistic dictator who’s been feeding US a line or is it “A-Lying?”

Another Texas congressman, Steve Stockman (who is Senator Cornyn’s Tea Party challenger in the upcoming primary) walked out of the speech.

Isn’t it an amazing coincidence how Southern Republican Congressmen lost their sense of decorum and their respect for the office of the presidency at the precise moment when a black man was sworn in? Did a memo go out, or did they just know what to do by intuition?

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  • By Unstable Equilibrium | The Weekly Sift on February 3, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    […] This week’s featured posts: “Occupying the State of the Union” and “Subtext in the State of the Union (and its responses)“ […]

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