I’m going “deep undercover” to watch the State of the Union address at a gathering hosted by members of President Barack Obama’s own campaign-turned-activist organization, Organizing for Action (OfA). I can’t disclose the location: suffice it to say it’s in a very lovely upscale neighborhood, one in which I could only dream of living. (I’m not rich enough to vote Democratic these days. Just can’t afford it. Inequality, my friends.)
How did I get here? Easy: they invited me. OfA may not have been successful at passing any legislation of note in its first year of existence. but it is very well organized and I get a call every few months from someone asking me to come to a local event. The volunteers are unfailingly polite. They while away the time before the speech by talking about issues. They like Obamacare. They like immigration reform and gun control. They love Obama.
The speech starts. We’re watching via the White House’s official lifestream, which includes bullet points and graphics alongside the video of the president speaking. It’s a great idea, and I’m not sure why I haven’t seen the GOP do anything like it–not since that memorable Hillarycare chart twenty years ago. Those gathered here clap right along with the president’s applause lines. (I’ve never seen that before, not even at an OfA event.)
When the president raises his voice and pledges to take executive action when Congress does not agree with him–“I will not stand still”–someone interjects: “Good!” The Democratic base is spoiling for a fight. People seem to be taking it all in–right down to the details (like the claim that the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” program is responsible for a slight and probably insignificant decline in obesity that began long before President Obama took office).
Lots of laughter at Obama’s joke about Boehner: “It’s how the son of a barkeep is the Speaker of the House.” The laughter is not entirely at Boehner’s expense. I’ve watched every one of Obama’s speeches to Congress, and that was the best line yet, because there was at least a hint of genuine warmth and humor there. (If you’re going to circumvent Congress’s constitutional authority and defy the electorate, far better to do it with a smile than a frown.)
There is lots of applause in the room for Obama’s proposal to restore funding to research (i.e. reverse the sequester). No applause at all, however, greets the president’s request for “fast-track” trade negotiating authority. (I suspect it may have gone over some people’s heads, but it may also be something many in the room oppose.) There is genuine consternation–and no applause–when the president lauds the rise in natural gas production.
Lots of applause greets the president’s declaration on climate change: “The debate is settled.” Mild applause for getting immigration reform done. More applause for extending unemployment insurance. Not much side conversation. People are paying closer attention than in the past: they need to hear him lead. They need to know, in the midst of the free-fall of Obamacare (barely mentioned in the speech so far), that he has a handle on things.
At this moment, I remove my jacket. Let’s take a step back. Beyond the politics, this is OK, a decent speech. It’s all small ball stuff–the kind of speech a president should give when the country is doing well. It’s not really equal to the moment: high unemployment, increasing dangers abroad, collapsing confidence in government, a health insurance crisis of his own making. There’s a lot of recycled stuff: preschool education, “equal pay for equal work,” all that.
But there’s a sense of confidence in the president that I don’t think the country’s seen for a while. Partly it’s that he thinks he can’t fall any further. Partly it’s because he knows he can still count on the media. And partly, I think, it is the economy. The stock market is in bad shape, and there are a lot of other bad numbers, but the energy boom is having a broader effect. This year has the best real chance to offer recovery, after years of false starts.
Back to the speech. The line about equal pay is one the president has repeated since early 2009, when he signed the Lily Ledbetter Act. (Equal pay was already guaranteed–that act only extended the statute of limitations for lawsuits. All other things being equal, women earn about the same–and in some jobs, more–than men for the same work.) Yet the Obama fans applaud enthusiastically and note the Republicans’ silence as a kind of confirmation.
Finally, we get to Obamacare. The president focuses on the most popular part of the program (and yet one of the most underutilized, curiously): namely, coverage for preexisting conditions. He produces false figures of “nine million Americans” signing up for Obamacare. There is no attempt to grapple with the challenges facing the program’s implementation–the millions dropped from their insurance plans, the president’s own lies, the high cost of coverage.
Obama invites the Republicans–again–to offer their alternatives. That goes over well with the OfA crowd, who whoop and holler at the TV. (He has made the same offer many times, and never honored it. There are several Republican plans on the table, including one offered just yesterday. (The number of repeal votes flashes on the White House’s accompanying slide show, but not the number of alternative health care plans and amendments.)
The president is on the home stretch now, and the audience here at OfA HQ loves the speech. They don’t care that the president has used the same lines before (the same promise on voting reform featured in last year’s speech, for example). They don’t mutter “Benghazi” when the president praises our diplomats, the way a Republican audience almost certainly would do. (I repress the urge to shake my head at the president’s chutzpah on this point.)
There’s more applause when the president says: “America must move off a permanent war footing.” In a year when we suffered a dramatic terror attack, i.e. the Boston Marathon bombing (and there are even victims at the speech at the White House’s invitation), has it not occurred to the president and his followers that we do not have the only choice in the matter? (Evidently not.) And there’s that promise about closing Guantánamo again… applause, five years later.
Applause for “a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their (sic) side.” (That’s refreshing.) The president goes on to say that Iran “has begun to eliminate its stockpile” of highly-enriched uranium. That’s just not true: they are oxidizing it, a reversible process. And yet I’m certain that much of the country, certainly those in this room, will believe the president’s claims. We really do live in two (or more) separate factual universes.
When the president promises to veto any new Iran sanctions, the room bursts into applause. (A stark contrast to the smattering of applause in Congress, as well as to the opinions of the rest of the American people, who support tougher sanctions.) Is there really anyone who believes that Obama “will be the first” to ask for new sanctions if the Iran deal fails? (In this room, perhaps.) Do those people know that the bill before Congress is, effectively, that? (Probably not.)
Now we arrive at the conclusion. I give the president credit for his delivery and swagger when his poll numbers, and the public mood, would suggest the need for greater humility. But if I had to invent a snarky title for a write-up of this speech, it would be: “Reduce, Re-use, Recycle.” It’s a narrow agenda that claims credit for other people’s achievements and repeats policies that have failed in the past. It does nothing to grapple with new challenges.
But that’s not how the people in this room feel. They’re excited. Sure, there were some things in the speech they didn’t like, or found puzzling. And they don’t know how he’s going to do it. But this was the speech they came to hear. It was a pep talk, a throwdown, a rally. It was confrontational, but was leavened by its general tone. Obama did his job, which was not to lay out a real agenda but to prove he was still “ready to lead.” Whatever that meant, or means.