It's hard to react to last night's State of the Union speech, because it fulfilled its expectations so thoroughly and - I fear - so pointlessly.
Once more, President Obama delivered a broadly scoped, reasonably detailed, and occasionally artful address that said many of the things that must be said. I particularly appreciated the president's respectful yet direct engagement with the Supreme Court - some of whom were sitting feet away from him - just days after they handed down a singularly disastrous decision that further cedes our country to corporate control. The sum of Obama's speech was a reality-check for the nation and its new leader, a frozen moment of America's increasingly difficult dialogue about its future.
Last night's address introduced us to Obama chastened, a leader forced to profess empathy for fickle voters who seem perplexed that an economic crisis built over the past decade has not somehow vanished by the snap of his fingers. The government will cinch its belt, he promised. Better yet, bailout-banks will start paying the same late fees that cash-strapped Americans have long endured. And we will once again pledge to shrink the debt that has transformed our nation from powerhouse to poorhouse, like an alcoholic swearing off the juice when morning comes, just as we always promise.
Along the way, Obama admitted that comprehensive health care reform, that shimmering Brigadoon of the American imagination, will once again vanish into the mist. Abandoning hopes of universal coverage, the president ushered the nation down the well-groomed trail of compromised incrementalism. We may see a few improvements in health care delivery - apparently the First Lady is tackling childhood obesity - but the systemic faults that profit the insurance industry while plundering American budgets will almost surely remain.
You can bet that the wingnuts on both sides of the political spectrum will continue calling the president a fraud or a fascist, either because he does too little or too much. They didn't need to see the speech to know where they stand. Yet I imagine that most listeners recognized the president's efforts to define some kind of middle ground in American discourse. During the speech, Obama challenged the assembled Congress to think past its prejudices: "We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions. So let's show the American people that we can do it together."
Did his speech do any good? It's hard to say. But judging from reactions and broader political realities, I don't think so.
Republicans generally set on their hands whenever the president veered from generically popular themes such as tax reduction or troop appreciation, when they weren't otherwise smirking to themselves. And Democrats were little better. Yes, they stood and applauded. Glowingly, supportively. Still, I'm certain that members of the president's party mostly daydreamed about their own concerns. Even as they clapped and cheered, they seemed to peer past the peaks of Obama's oratory, fixing their eyes into the abyss of a suddenly vicious election cycle. Holding congress is the highest priority for a permanent political class.
Thinking back to the Massachusetts debacle, many Dems were thinking to themselves, even as the president called for a new national consensus, "Yeah, but when is the next former nude model who drives a pickup gonna appear on the scene? And will he come gunning for me?" Solving the problems of a generation means less to these folks than fundraising for 2010.
So President Obama delivered another fine speech. As usual, I watched and listened and marveled about how wonderful it is to have a national leader who reflects the complexity of our national aspirations: vision and practicality, confidence and humility, forbearance and courage. While many of my friends on the Right seem hellbent on transforming the president into a bumper sticker caricature, I still believe he's the best person for a lousy time.
Thus, to me it seems less a question of whether our nation can be saved. In an era of partisan bickering and popular disengagement, the question is more fundamental: Do we deserve to be saved?