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After Obama's Empty Words, Daniels Said It All

After Obama's Empty Words, Daniels Said It All

By Mark Salter - January 26, 2012


When the president finally uttered the last line of his nearly 7,000-word address, the State of our Union was exhausted. Our Union is getting stronger, he assured us, and all we need to do to make it really, really strong is act as courageously and selflessly as Navy SEALs, add a few more trifling subsidies to our labyrinthine tax code, raise Warren Buffet's taxes and give his secretary Tim Geithner’s job, sue the Chinese, arrest investment bankers and, oh yeah, re-elect me.

I’m sure there have been other unserious State of the Union addresses, but Tuesday night’s was almost flippant. He really could have dispensed with the clunky joke about milk subsides -- most of the speech was obviously intended as tongue-in-cheek.

Even as wink-wink, don’t-take-this-seriously campaign boilerplate, the speech was most notable for its omissions. After dispensing with his usual “Life is unfair. I inherited a mess from my predecessor” excuse, the only memorable accomplishment in the president’s affirmative case for his administration’s tenure was the death of Osama bin Laden.

His most significant domestic policy accomplishment, health care reform (and whether you support it or not, it was his most consequential accomplishment), was mentioned only in passing, as if it was just a little something he put together on an otherwise idle Tuesday.

Why such short shrift? Obamacare is unpopular with swing voters, that’s why. A dead bin Laden, on the other hand, is a definite crowd pleaser.

Much of the rest of the address consisted of genuflections to the Occupy Wherever I Happen to Be Standing at the Moment crowd, tamed down for prime time and exemplifying the politicians whose ideas of governance were best described by Michael Curley's famous formulation of the French revolutionist who supposedly explained: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

Our $16 trillion debt and the approaching insolvency of Medicare and Social Security were accorded a sentence or two -- more than health care, but hardly appropriate for the gravity of the problems. His rhetorical economy on the subject reflects the economy of effort the president has expended to address the crises.

“We’ve come too far to turn back now,” Obama insisted. Is there ever a more predictable campaign slogan for an incumbent president? And how far is “too far”? Apparently, the infinite trek from the 9 percent unemployment rate when he last delivered a State of the Union address to today’s 8.5 percent impresses the president more than those in unemployment lines. He might as well have thumped his chest, and crowed, “Stick with me, and I’ll get this sucker down to eight-and-a-quarter percent by the time of my next inauguration.”

It was a juvenile and tiresome display of blame-shifting, obfuscation and preening. Its effect was almost enervating. Perhaps, that was its secret purpose: To use wordiness, predictability, and banality to weary his opposition. Goodness knows, I would have surrendered if it had gone on a minute longer.

All I felt when it reached its long overdue conclusion was the same complaint that has troubled me for a while. Why are there so few adults left in charge of this country? Serious, practical, purposeful people, not given to demagoguery or obfuscation or treating political opponents as Satan’s spawn. Men and women who address their constituents as if we, too, were serious and practical -- and unlikely to riot when given an honest account of our problems.

We had an excellent example of the statesmanship missing in our public affairs a few minutes after the president high-fived his way out of the House chamber when Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels offered the Republican response.

In sharp contrast to the president’s address (and mercifully brief), Daniels set the severity of our fiscal crisis before his audience in direct, honest prose, unadorned with cryptic references to Obama’s supposed allegiance to Saul Alinsky, Kenyan anti-colonial movements, and French social democracy. He even began with a few grace notes to the opposition, which is a few more than the president offered.

Daniels’s theme: We’re in a serious mess; we all created it; we’re all going to have to fix it; the president’s policies made it worse; and Republicans will help you, the American people, dig us out of it without letting this “big and bossy” government make the job harder. The whole thing had the rarest of qualities in the rancorous, puerile politics of our time: It didn’t sweat the silly stuff, and focused only on the big job at hand, an admonition that’s been absent from our politics for decades.

In the long ago, pre-Trump, Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Santorum, Romney and Gingrich yet-again days, I used this space to plead with Daniels to run for president. He declined for personal reasons. But, really, after Obama’s feckless performance and the histrionics and other silliness of the Republican nomination race, is it any wonder why I still find myself chanting this week, “Run, Mitch, run”? 

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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