Every successful playwright knows the fundamental rule of storytelling on stage: Show, don’t tell. So it was fitting that on the biggest stage available to a sitting president, the State of the Union Address, Barack Obama demonstrated the power of a vivid in-your-face example.
Harking back to his 2004 speech to the Democratic Convention—a rhetorical triumph that elevated an Illinois state senator to Democratic presidential nominee in four years—Obama talked again about moving politics beyond poisonous partisanship. The president spoke about how many legislators in both parties privately hate “arguing past each other on cable shows, the constant fund-raising, the always looking over your shoulder to see how the base will react to every decision.”
The president acknowledged that, after six years in the White House, it is easy to argue that his bring-us-together vision of one America has failed. But he insisted that the “cynics” were wrong and it was still possible to achieve a politics that spoke to our better angels. In fact, Obama grew so passionate on this point that he seemed poised to declare, “I am the man from Hope.”
It was an inspirational side of Obama that has mostly remained hidden in recent years. But the president’s sixth State of the Union Address was partly written as a valedictory. So it highlighted both a conscious nod to his 2004 convention speech and an unacknowledged reference to the Dorothy Fields’ lyric that he used in his first Inaugural address: “We have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off and begun again the work of rebuilding America.”
Obama’s dream of a politics that moves beyond “gotcha moments” and “trivial gaffes” is as alluring as it was in 2004. But in the State of the Union, just as Obama was moving towards the climax of the section on achieving “a better politics” and “rebuilding trust,” he inadvertently demonstrated why it is so hard to move beyond self-defeating partisanship.
“I have no more campaigns to run,” Obama declared, prompting an outburst of sarcastic applause from Republicans. Obama could have done the presidential thing and ignored the provocation. Or pointed to the mocking applause as an example of the partisan gamesmanship that he deplores. Instead, Obama responded to snark with more snark, ad-libbing, “I know because I won both of them.”
Surprise: Obama’s petulant response became a story in its own right. The New York Times, for example, ran the snippet online with the headline, “Obama’s Zinger in State of the Union.” But that’s just the problem. Politics has become all zingers—an arena in which anyone who wants to make an adult argument flees in the face of adolescent towel snapping.
More than any Hollywood script, a State of the Union address is the ultimate in writing by committee. With so many fingers fiddling with the draft (speechwriters, White House advisers and Cabinet secretaries) even the best addresses to Congress take on a bloated feel, as every competing faction wants to get their favorite paragraphs in. It explains why Obama (who supposedly wanted a short speech this year) clocked in at 61 minutes.
As a result, there were sections of the speech that ran counter to Obama’s plea for high-minded debate in Washington. In arguing for a higher minimum wage, Obama told Republicans in Congress, “If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000, go try it.”
In substantive terms, Obama, of course, was right. But as an argument, it was better suited to a 30-second campaign commercial or a political debate. And the same “gotcha” mentality in the White House that inserted this challenge into the State of the Union contributes to the polarization in Washington.
There were other moments of political spin in the speech. In a drive-by reference to campaign reform, Obama said, “A better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pulls us into the gutter—and more time lifting young people up.”
While Republicans were the largest beneficiaries of hidden money in the 2014 elections, the Democrats (following the example set by Obama in his 2012 race) have enthusiastically embraced the new world of Super PACs. Although this point gets lost amid the demonization of the Koch Brothers, the two most generous Super PAC donors were liberal Tom Steyer ($74 million) and anti-gun crusader Mike Bloomberg ($24 million).
As Obama played for the history books in this speech with its triumphant tone on the economy and, yes, foreign policy, it should be stressed that the president has faced an unyielding and often petty Republican Party throughout his time in office. With this kind of just-say-no GOP opposition from the moment he took the oath of office in 2009, Obama may never have been able to move beyond partisan rancor in Washington.
But as the president showed in a sometimes eloquent and sometimes flabby speech Tuesday night, you can’t have it both ways. Either you can deplore narrow-minded political gamesmanship in Washington or you can indulge in it. But you can’t successfully do both in the same State of the Union Address.
Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.