State of the Union addresses are almost never great speeches. They almost can't be, given all the ground that presidents feel obliged to cover. A speech that must defend the record of a previous year and set policy priorities for a coming year on a full range of issues both foreign and domestic will inevitably end up meandering, disjointed, and/or bloated.
There are sometimes good passages within State of the Union addresses -- a few paragraphs laying out a coherent vision on a discrete topic. Last night, President Obama didn't even have one of those. Instead he attempted to stretch his "winning the future" theme across a speech that was plodding and shapeless.
The decision of Senators and Representatives to mix the seating arrangement was in some ways a blessing: It made it difficult for one side of the chamber to sustain the applause that would have stretched out the already too-long runtime. But while the theatrics of State of the Union applause in the traditional partisan seating arrangement can be tiresome, they do serve a function: They tell viewers who supports what. Casual viewers of last night's speech could be forgiven for assuming that Obama's agenda enjoys the mild support of nearly all of Congress.
This does the president no favors. His party just took major losses in a midterm election, and his political fortunes depend in part on positioning himself as a moderate in a party that a majority of Americans feel has moved too far left. But when he tries to move to the center, as when he embraces an earmark reform proposal opposed by the leadership of his own party, he's denied the politically powerful visual of applause coming mostly from Republicans. Conversely, if one of his various proposals from the left resonates with viewers, he doesn't get the visual reminder that Republicans are on the other side.
But those are stylistic failures. The real problems with the speech are, of course, substantive. High-speed rail makes little economic sense in most of the United States given the realities of population density. "Clean energy" subsidies are, likewise, generally boondoggles.
More troubling was the signal that, while Obama would like Congress to ratify the free trade agreement his administration signed with South Korea -- after gratuitously re-opening negotiations the Bush administration had already concluded -- he's putting the pending trade agreements with Panama and Colombia on the back burner; his reference to "keep[ing] faith with American workers... as we pursue agreements with Panama and Colombia" even implies that he might again try to re-open negotiations that the Bush administration had finalized -- costing exporters billions to appease protectionist union bosses.
But most shameful of all was his failure to mention the clashes currently going on in Egypt, except in the most oblique terms:
We saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.
The protests in Egypt, inspired by Tunisia, put the U.S. in an awkward position, as Hosni Mubarak is a client, and some (but not all) of his opposition is intensely anti-American. But this makes putting distance between Washington and Cairo all the more urgent. The more the U.S. is seen to be supporting the Egyptian dictatorship as it cracks down on its people, the more likely it is that we won't like the results if Mubarak does fall. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs put out a cautious statement last night urging "the Egyptian authorities to respond to any protests peacefully," adding that "The Egyptian government has an important opportunity to be responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people, and pursue political, economic and social reforms that can improve their lives and help Egypt prosper." There's no reason Obama couldn't have said something like this himself. His reluctance to do so is not just regrettable, it's dangerous.