Earlier this week I co-hosted with Eric Byler our weekly radio show, The Middle Ground. We approached the hour as a sort of “pre-game” show for the State of the Union address and, much like those who sat around pontificating before the Ravens squeaked by the Forty-Niners, we, too, chatted about what we expected to see, what we hoped to see, and what we thought might really happen before this particular political extravaganza (all while sounding like we know a bit more than we actually do).
Here I’ve a confession: I didn’t actually watch the speech. I can’t handle the too-frequent applause moments nor the distractions woven from discordantly colored ties. I prefer to read the speech instead, which I did, the morning after. I was neither impressed nor depressed by what I read, but I did have an eerie—even creepy—sense of déjà vu, a feeling that I had read much the same things before.
As it turns out, I had—the day before, in fact, when, in preparation for that self-same radio show I took the time to re-read both the 2012 and 2011 State of the Union transcripts. There were strong—quite strong—similarities on a number of key issues.
For example, this year President Obama said that “[o]ur first priority is making America a magnet for new jobs and manufacturing.” Last year he talked about a blueprint for an economy that’s “built to last,” saying that “[t]his blueprint begins with American manufacturing.”
The call for an energy-independent America also rang a repeating note. 2012 saw the call for an “all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy,” words that echoed this year’s call to push forward on all fronts, including more solar, wind, natural gas, and oil (albeit this year with a slight—a very slight—nod toward climate change as an important motivator).
The resonance persisted when discussing education and job training; this is now the third year in a row where Obama has talked about the importance of better schooling at all levels, of training the next generation of scientists and engineers, and of the need to partner with corporate American to both train that same generation and to re-train many in today’s workforce.
On immigration, too, he sang a familiar tune. “[T] he time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” he told us in the 2013 speech, while in the 2012 speech he said that “We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now,” a statement that redundantly echoed the same theme from 2011: “Now, I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration….I know that debate will be difficult. I know it will take time. But tonight, let's agree to make that effort.” Apparently, we didn’t.
One can go through just about the entire list of major issues: the Middle East, equal pay, gay rights, infrastructure needs, tax reform, regulation, Wall Street, the military and more, and find essentially the same language, meaning and tone in each of the last three SOTU speeches. (Two notable exceptions are gun control, where recent events have brought the topic to the foreground, and money in politics, which arose in 2011 but has since faded to the background, perhaps because Obama—along with just about everyone else, found benefit in PACs and SuperPACs.)
The obvious question that comes to mind is: Why? Why are we sitting here for the third year in a row listening to essentially the same speech? We might offer the obvious: Republicans have forced unnecessary gridlock, which has made it increasingly difficult (save for the occasional tiny step forward) to succeed on any of the President’s recent agenda items. True, too, is the fact that President Obama spent much of 2012 campaigning rather than leading (a necessary but evil side-effect of our once-in-four-years circus parade). Still, neither of these excuses explains why we’re not hearing about different things, about (dare I say it) the real problem: Washington D.C. is and continues to be highly dysfunctional. It’s a foundational problem, one on which nearly all others rest. And if we don’t deal with it, well, we’re unlikely to make significant progress on anyone’s agenda.
What I would have liked to hear this year is another section to the speech, an important—perhaps critical—addendum, something that might have sounded like this:
“And finally, to all of you in this chamber and to all of you across America, I would like to apologize.
The speech you’ve just heard—while passionate and heart-felt—is very much the same speech I gave last year and the year before that. And we—all of us sitting here tonight—are to blame. We continue to be a country whose greatest enemy stares at us from the mirror. We’ve become a group of people who can’t get out of our own way long enough to accomplish much of anything. And so tonight I’m making it my number one priority to use the President’s bully pulpit for one purpose and one purpose only: to convince everyone that change is needed right here in Washington. I will push for new rules in the Senate and in the House that make it easier to have up or down votes. I will work to break up the divisive caucuses that meet in secret. I will work to expose the backroom lobbying that gives corporate American more power than it should ever have. And I will do all of these things in full view of you, the American people, who have a right to know why their government doesn’t work for them anymore.
While every single agenda item I’ve talked about tonight is critical to the future of this country, this one issue supersedes them all. And my pledge to you is simply this: Next year, at this time and on this day, you will not hear about what we want to accomplish, but what we have accomplished. Next year, at this time and on this day, you will hear not this same speech again, but the speech you deserve.
Thank you, and God Bless America.”
Oh… if only….