I did not watch the State of the Union Address. I don’t recall how long I’ve been boycotting these — I think since the Bush Jong Il regime, when I no longer had to watch them as a part of my job — but it’s been a while. Barack Obama is merely the latest president who’s pronouncements I’ve tried hard to ignore.
I want to say they’re meaningless, presidential speeches, but I don’t quite think that. Bush Jong Il’s second inaugural was a majesterial declaration by the Bush regime that the United States seeks to liberate others by dominating them, a Bush take on Wilsonianism that really isn’t that different from Woodrow Wilson’s (given his racism). Presidential words mean a lot, but at the same time, they don’t mean very much. If you listened to Bush’s speeches on Israel and Palestine, for example, he sounded incredibly progressive — he used the word Palestine to describe a place and a nation, not just a people (I’m not sure any previous president had ever done so). But his words were completely disconnected from what his regime was actually accomplishing.
Obama is a particularly beguiling speaker, mostly because he speaks so easily and so well of hope and faith — a secular faith in America that at the same is laced heavily with religious and eschatological language. I’ve also come to the conclusion that Obama’s language is, more often than not, meaningless, largely because the disconnect from what he says and how he actually governs is so vast. Greater than it was under Bush or even Clinton. I think Obama may even be beguiled by his words because I’m not really he really knows what he means past the wonderful sounding words. In this, I am with Jacob Bronsthner when he wrote recently in the Christian Science Monitor:
[S]ince his inauguration, Obama’s methodological political theory has proved thin and sometimes incoherent. He will never support tax cuts for the rich, until he will. He criticizes Bush’s expansive view of presidential war powers, then adopts it. The list goes on.
It’s not that he breaks his policy promises more than other politicians. It’s not that he seeks compromise – a virtue. It’s not even that his policies are wrongheaded. It’s the fact that when he compromises, when he reaches policy conclusions, there’s no sense that it derives from anything other than ad hoc balancing.
There is no well of enduring principle upon which he seems to draw. Even if he’s a pragmatist, eschewing universal principles in favor of context-specific values and concerns, we still don’t know what those temporal values and concerns are, or why he believes in them. So far he’s the piecemeal president.
Bronsthner is convinced — and I think he’s right — that Obama doesn’t seem to really believe in anything. In fact, I’m fairly certain the point of his speeches (and Bush’s before him) are to make partisan supporters feel good about themselves. (Chris Hedges writes about this kind of in his latest essay.) “We are on the right side of good and truth and beauty and history,” supporters can say to themselves. And that is about all the words he speaks are worth.
Yet not all of Obama’s words are meaningless. As worthless as the Cairo speech was in actually producing any real “change” in how America did things in the Middle East, in April of 2007, Obama spoke before the Chicago Foreign Policy Council and outlined what would become his approach to foreign policy, talking about using the “full arsenal” of American power (and ingenuity) to confront “aggression” and maintain American military superiority. (I’ve just reread it, and for the most part, it is a speech Bush could have given.) This showed that Obama was not a peace candidate in any meaningful way, not willing to consider the possibility that the United States might be an ordinary nation, and I think that speech meant something. Those were not empty words, any more than Bush’s ersatz-Trotskyite missive in January 2005 was empty of meaning too.
Not all of the State of the Union was meaningless, as Robert Dreyfuss at The Nation notes:
He didn’t exactly trumpet American “exceptionalism,” and he didn’t proclaim America’s mission to remake the world, in so many words, but he inserted into his speech an odd phrase: “No one rival superpower is aligned against us.” Without saying so, he portrayed the United States, therefore, as the world’s lone superpower, an errant vision that reinforces the view of the neoconservatives and liberal interventionists that America has some vague responsibility for the rest of the world. “American leadership has been renewed and America’s standing has been restored,” he proclaimed. Really? Nowhere in his speech did Obama reflect on the necessary, humbling vision of the United States as a declining world power whose future depends on its reaching a series of accommodations with at least five or six other rising powers and regions.
But why else should expect different? In this, there is meaning. Obama’s world is still an America-centered, America-led, America-managed world for the benefit of America (again, dominating others in order to liberate them — more good progressive governance) so that more people can live in the abundance and freedom that America. And that is empire, the empire Obama remains committed to maintaining. Plain and simple.