Entry from February 25, 2009

Here’s the opening paragraph of Michael Shear and Anne Kornblut’s Washington Post news item on last night’s speech by the President to a joint session of Congress: “President Obama offered a grim portrait of America’s plight in an address to a joint session of Congress last night, but he promised to lead an economic renewal that would lift the country out of its current crisis without bankrupting its future.” Well, up to a point. For this sentence could easily have been written before he ever gave the speech. In fact, I would be surprised if there were not more than one prediction of what he would say that went, roughly, like this: “President Obama cannot avoid presenting a grim portrait of America’s plight tonight, but he must also try to be upbeat and promise to lead an economic renewal that will lift the country out of its current crisis without bankrupting its future.”

In short, the speech was not so much a speech as an anticipation of the media’s post-speech analysis. It was really a meta-speech: one which provided its own account of its tone and purpose and even its effect on the audience — the sort of account that, in recent years, has been considered the prerogative of the media — in lieu of actually saying anything substantive. As such, it might be considered the President’s own version of the “twittering” that many in his allegedly “distinguished” audience were said to have engaged in during the speech.

That is to say, it was a speech about the speaker, and the speaker’ feelings, and not about the country or its problems. He knows we are hurting, and he sympathizes. He “gets it” — you may remember that that was what his opponent in the last election was so often said not to do. He is also angry about what certain unnamed people have done to our economy and our banking industry. But at the same time he is hopeful and determined to bring the country out of recession with a dazzling array of new measures that will practically pay for themselves. He even invites us to partake in his own specialness, his own excellence of character, when he identifies the nation with himself. “We are not quitters,” he says.

Speak for yourself, I want to say. But of course it is all part of the speaker’s job of building confidence — confidence not in the country or its people (as he pretends) but in himself. Like any good salesman, President Obama has fixed us with his glittering eye and invited us believe in him as a way of instilling belief in the product he is selling. The product must be good and authentic, we are sure, because he is good and authentic. And never, never, never will he allow us to think for a moment about its costs, except vaguely, as he continues enumerating its benefits with great and mouth-watering specificity at such remarkable length and with such fascination of delivery that he does not allow any negative thoughts to arise.

For if he is soberly sympathetic about the “crisis”or “predicament” we are in, at the same time, he is hopeful and optimistic about the future. And how could he not be, after all, with so much to look forward to? Three and a half million new jobs in two years? Check. Rich guys getting their corporate jets taken away from them? Check. Quality affordable health care for everyone? Check. A cure for cancer in our time? Check. Doubling the supply of renewable energy in the next three years? Check. Thousands of miles of new power lines? Check. No more high school dropouts? Check. Increased funding for education? Check. Increased numbers and increased pay for the armed forces? Check. Oh, and by the way, the deficit cut in half by the end of his first term of office? Check.

“None of this will come without cost, nor will it be easy,” he said. “But this is America. We don’t do what’s easy. We do what is necessary to move this country forward.” Hooray for America! U.S.A.! But that’s the problem, isn’t it? What is necessary to move this country forward? He never quite gets around to spelling that out. We keep being told about the hard things and the costs and the sacrifices, but they are never mentioned specifically. So far as this speech is concerned, it’s all gravy — even the self- congratulation we are invited to engage in for doing the hard things and what’s necessary no matter what the cost! What cost? I don’t see any costs.

Just look at universal health care, for example. This is seen as “a commitment that’s paid for in part by efficiencies in our system that are long overdue. And it’s a step we must take if we hope to bring down our deficit in the years to come.” In other words, “quality, affordable health care for every American” is not one of the things that’s going to cost us anything. Rather, it’s going to help bring down the deficit. You’ve got to wonder why nobody thought of this method of deficit reduction before.

I suffer no illusions that this will be an easy process. It will be hard. But I also know that nearly a century after Teddy Roosevelt first called for reform, the cost of our health care has weighed down our economy and the conscience of our nation long enough. So let there be no doubt: health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year.

Wonderful, isn’t it, how all the President’s goals seem to support each other. You might almost wonder what he can be talking about when he says it’s “no easy process.” Sounds pretty easy to me! Likewise, pouring new money into an educational system which has grown steadily worse with each new injection of funds over the last forty years is supposed to be an “investment” — not the kind that the banks are now having to be bailed out of but the kind that is going to yield a return in the form of economic growth and efficiency. Good luck with that, Mr President! But then, behind and beyond everything else, there lies the sublime confidence that “in our hands lies the ability to shape our world for good or for ill.” Can he really believe this? Whether he does or not, he’s done a magnificent job of making the once “adversarial” media believe it.

Discover more from James Bowman

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Similar Posts