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Obama At His Best

The president's excellent, nationalistic State of the Union address.

I thought that my reaction to President Obama’s State of the Union speech was colored by having spent the day listening to Chicago mayoral candidates talk about pensions and potholes, or by the two Scotches I downed afterwards, but upon rereading the speech this morning, I’m once again convinced that this was Obama’s best speech as president. I’m not so much referring to his rhetoric or delivery, both of which were fine, but to the way he answered the perennial question, “What is to be done?”

Obama is in a difficult political position, similar to that of Bill Clinton in 1995: He and his party have been rebuked at the polls, and to the extent the voters sent a message, it is one that Obama had better ignore at his and the country’s peril. It was summed up by freshman GOP Representative Nan Hayworth, who declared on the eve of the speech, “The best thing the federal government can do is stop trying to create jobs.” Obama could either capitulate to this nonsense (as to some extent Clinton did), defy his detractors (as Franklin Roosevelt did after the 1938 election), or find a way to change the conversation—a way that would allow him to do what was best for the country without dooming his party. He did the latter, and remarkably well.

He used an appeal to economic nationalism to do it. By framing America’s challenge in that fashion, he allowed himself to justify government and the further expansion of government spending and investment, and he provided a new villain (other than himself or the government) for the continuing economic downturn. And it wasn’t simply economic nationalism as a kind of game of competition. National security was the subtext of Obama’s appeal.

Except at the height of the Great Depression in 1933, Americans have only approved the expansion of government when they saw their security as a nation threatened. Think of the Civil War, the two world wars, and the Cold War. Dwight Eisenhower justified his massive interstate highway program as a way of allowing tanks to get around the continent in the case of war. Ronald Reagan justified his foray into industrial policy—the creation of the semiconductor consortium, Sematech, in 1987—as a way of preventing the bad guys from getting control of high-tech weaponry. We’re not of course facing an adversary now similar to the Germans in 1941 or the Soviets in 1956, but the underlying themes endure, and Obama was able to use them to his advantage.

The key moment in his speech was when he invoked America’s Sputnik moment—a reference to when Americans learned to their horror in 1958 that the Soviets had beat them into space with the launch of the first satellite. At the time, the news about Sputnik justified a massive expansion of the space program and of federal grants for science and science education. Here’s how Obama invoked Sputnik:

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into
space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik¸ we
had no idea how we'd beat them to the moon. The
science wasn't there yet. NASA didn't even exist. But
after investing in better research and education, we
didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave
of innovation that created new industries and millions
of new jobs.

This is our generation's Sputnik moment. Two years
ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research
and development we haven't seen since the height of
the Space Race. In a few weeks, I will be sending a
budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We'll
invest in biomedical research, information
technology, and especially clean energy technology—
an investment that will strengthen our security,
protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for
our people.

So what, you might ask? The Cold War is over. But Americans know that we have a new economic, and possibly military, adversary across the Pacific, and that some of America’s economic woes are due to our enormous trade deficit with China. So without saying so explicitly—which would have been impolitic to say the least (we are not at war with China, and should not do anything to encourage the notion)—Obama reaped the thematic rewards of a neo-Cold War metaphor that implied a threat to our national security without sowing the actual seeds of war. Clean-energy technology, high-speed rail—they’re not just about spending money on new gadgets, they’re about national defense and survival just as the highway program was. That was the unspoken theme of Obama’s economic nationalism, and it framed the debate over government and the downturn in a new way that will allow him to promote the kind of measures that he has always wanted.

What else about Obama’s speech? In evaluating what a president says, it is important to distinguish generalities from specifics and subordinate clauses from main clauses. Generalities (“I’m going to freeze spending”) don’t count as much as specifics (cutting "billions of dollars in defense spending"). Subordinate clauses (“Although we do need to prune regulations”) don’t count as much as main clauses (“We need to protect citizens against dirty air and water”). In his speech, Obama consistently threw rhetorical subordinate clauses to the opposition while preserving and defending his own liberal agenda in the main, specific clauses. Look at the way he described regulatory review:

To reduce barriers to growth and investment, I've
ordered a review of government regulations. When we
find rules that put an unnecessary burden on
businesses, we will fix them. But I will not hesitate to
create or enforce commonsense safeguards to protect
the American people. That's what we've done in this
country for more than a century. It's why our food is
safe to eat, our water is safe to drink, and our air is
safe to breathe. It's why we have speed limits and
child labor laws. It's why last year, we put in place
consumer protections against hidden fees and
penalties by credit card companies, and new rules to
prevent another financial crisis. And it's why we
passed reform that finally prevents the health
insurance industry from exploiting patients.

Obama used the same rhetorical strategy in discussing education and his health care bill. The opposition can’t say they were ignored, but the thrust of his message was a defense of the agenda with which he came into office in January 2009. And to Obama’s credit, he found a new way in this speech to present this message—a way will, one hopes, help reverse his administration’s and the country’s fortunes over the next two years.

John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic.