State of the Union 2013: What did you think?

Feb 13, 2013

Join The Post's Bob Kaiser as he discusses the 2013 State of the Union address.

Bob Kaiser:
I found the president's speech both interesting in substantive terms and disappointing rhetorically and politically. It seemed to me that he mostly avoided the big gorilla in the room--a Republican majority in the House disinclined to entertain any of the items on his long laundry lists of policy ideas. I guess I was hoping that he might surprise us with some new approach to partisan gridlock , at least rhetorically. No surprises. The laundry list did include some intriguing ideas I thought. I hope we got the basis for a meaty discussion at noon Wednesday, Washington time (Eastern). Please join us then with your comments and questions.
What did you think of The State of the Union address? Of the issues Obama discussed, what do you think is the most important? Did he leave anything out?

Submit your questions and opinions for Kaiser to respond to now.

I'm a well-educated guy, a reliable voter, who never misses a Bob Kaiser chat. With my bona fides hopefully established I wanted to point out that I didn't bother watching the State of the Union address last night, or Rubio's response, or any of the talking-head commentary about it. I simply don't care anymore. It's just theater -- a modern day court at Versailles where who gets to bathe the royal foot is more important than how to get affordable bread to the masses. So score one for the government nihilists, which is a shame because I know a responsible citizen should pay attention to what goes on in government but this stuff is just a waste of time. Thanks.

I like this as a way to begin our discussion today, and not because of the apple-polishing compliment at the beginning. And I've done so many of these over the last 15 years that I bet a nickel you HAVE missed some of them, and are no worse off because of it.

But I suspect your reaction to last night is not unique by a longshot. I've got a new book coming out in May abouit Congress, called ACT OF CONGRESS, in which I wrestled with this question of theatrical events in Washington. I'm sorry you missed the speech, which was certainly more interesting than anything else on TV at that hour, but I do think it is true that Washington theater has a tendency to alienate the citizenry, even the best citizens. Why was Joe Biden bouncing up out of his chair like a kid rooting for a high school basketball team? What conceivable benefit comes from the posturing and noise-making in the audience, political or other? And why to modern presidents feel they have to use this speech to read a laundry list of government programs and policies? I thought Obama missed an opportunity last night to connect his excellent Inaugural address to his agenda for a second term. 

HOWEVER, as I will point out in another anwer soon, my reactions may be all wet. Stan Greenberg, the Democratic pollster whom I admire and who tracks reactions to these events, had an interesting experience in Denver last night...

He left out a lot of good issues, but I would have liked him to mention the carnage in Mexico and the corruption and violence the illegality of drugs causes.

So here's someone who would have liked a longer laundry list. 

I thought it was an excellent speech. I also noticed that there was not a lot of jumping up and down and screaming. Yes, there were some "standing "O"s" but they were legitimate (at least to me), rather than just a bunch of partisan posturing, as usually takes place at these events. John Boehner looked like he wanted to be anywhere but where he was, though. Nevertheless, the passion surrounding the message about gun violence was so powerful, and so poignant and so moving, it almost had me in tears. That was the message that needed to be said, and the President said it so well and so powerfully, that alone was worth the price of admission.

Here's my chance to link you to the Greenberg focus group results, which are closer to this reader's reactions than to mine. Check this out:

Greenberg assembled 44 "swing coters"  in Denver who watched the speech using these gizmos that allow participants to instantly register their reactions, from very positive to totally thumbs down, to every sentence in the speech. As you'll see if you follow the link, for these voters, Obama was boffo, and so was his agenda.

Has raising the minimum wage ever had a long term effect on closing the income gap between those with minimum wage jobs and those with higher paying jobs? I don't know anyone who wouldn't like a $1/hour raise, but when everyone gets the same $1/hour raise, that also means that the prices on just about everything goes up. The cost of lunch at a fast food place will go up, the cost of a gallon of gas will go up, the cost of tickets to the movie will go up.

I should have done more homework on this, a question that has fascinated me for many years. There are sharply conflicting economic studies about the effect of raising the minimum wage. When I looked at this in the past I concluded that the argument for raising it was stronger than the argument for leaving it so low, but I cannot cite chapter and verse today, I apologize. I confess that personally, the idea that making nine bucks an hour might be excessive leaves me cold. Who among us could make due on nine bucks an hour? Not I.

Would McDonalds raise all its prices if it had to pay its people nine bucks? Maybe a little, but with all the competition they face, maybe not. 

I'm sorry to be a stickler for words, but no one is owed the right to success. People are owed the right to an opportunity to succeed. Some people will make more of that then others. When my grandparents had an awful job, they went out and found a better one. They improved their own lives. The first response for people today is to complain that its societies job to make their lives better, sorry its not. There is not enough personal responsibility taken in today's world.

Thanks for posting. Isn't it the right and opportunity to PURSUE success that is the issue here? Like "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness?"  I think so.

More of the same bigger government which will bring us back to Carter days.

Here's a discouraging comment from a reader who thinks in unsustainable generalizations without any sense of history whatsoever.  What was so bad about Carter days? Inflation!  Where did inflation in the '70s come from? A huge, unpaid-for war in Vietnam over ten years, ending in 1975.  Was that "big government?" In a way, sure, but I don't think it's what this reader has in mind.

In fact our government isn't bigger. Bill Clinton shrunk it, George W. Bush grew it somewhat, but compared to the governments of every other industrial democracy, it is SMALL.   In my view ou rbig problem is that it costs more than we are willing to pay for it, but it isn't so big.

Does the president have a mirror in front of him when he speaks?

He does not.

Why should we expect his emphases and approach to be any different from what he showed in his first 4 years? He's a campaigner by nature, and the SOTU was a campaign speech. Better to accept that fact and look at his actions from 2009-2013, if we want an idea of what to expect.

I disagree that it was a campaign speech. This is a president in search of  a place in history. He has calculated that pursuing the goals enunciated last night will get him there. He can't run again. But to achieve any of these goals, he has to find a way around the Republican House of Representatives, or persuade enough of its members to change course.  Or help Democrats win the House in 2014, an unlikely event to be sure. 

Did I miss mention of nuclear arms reduction?

Yes you did.

I think the SOUA was a balanced speech, full of substance, without rhetorical fireworks. You say that the President forgot the big gorilla in the room - Well, you are partially right - there is a big gorilla, but it is just that: a Gorilla. You forget though that this Gorilla refuses to evolve and fights tooth and nail to keep the country hostage to the interests of their ilk. Why should the President and the country be held captive to the Rich few and their Republican Spokesmen? The President's vision of the Way Forward prevailed in the recent national contest, so he should move ahead, without begging the other side to come to senses (they will not). For the current iteration of the GOP the only good "compromise" is the one that adapts their positions. They try to hide the fact that those same positions brought the country in its knees just a few short years ago. But people would be stupid to forget. So kudos to the President if he follows up with deeds.

Thanks for this--long, but interesting! And I'm not against long.

I was reminded again last night, especially by Rubio's extremely weak speech, how serious the Republicans' probems are. I've said here before, and still believe, that their situation is not unlike the British Conservative Party's in the Tony Blair era.  Margaret Thatcher took the Tories pretty far to the right; her immediate successor, John Major, tried to row it back toward the center with insufficient success.  The Tories lost three elections to Labor in that era, badly. They went through three different leaders.  They finally settled on Cameron, the British equivalent of a Rockefeller Republican in many respects.  They ran a centrist campaign. And they still couldn't win a majority in Parliament.  And they are not assured of reelection next time, given the frailty of their coalition, etc.

I don't make long-term predictions, but today I think it's pretty clear that our GOP ain't so Grand, and its prospects aren't so good. They are going to have to find new ways to appeal to the voters that turned against them in 2012. Rubio's re-hash of old conservative arguments is not going to do the trick.

So he mentioned it, talked about all of the above solutions, but it seemed like he was saying it so his administration could say they talked about it. I don't expect to see any substantive action.

It wasn't a powerful statement, was it? It's odd to think that if the scientific consensus is correct (and I have no reason to doubt it myself), there is a very good chance that this era of American--and world--history will be remembered a hundred years from now for one fact: we were the generations that allowed the earth to overheat so badly that enormous and permanent damage was done.  Of course, none of us will be here at the time.

How can Republicans (Rubio & Paul) respond to Pres. Obama's new ideas without having a chance to consider his recommendations? Unless they automatically say no to everything the President says.

This has been a good question ever since the "responses" began, and I have forgotten how long ago that was, it was SO long ago. To some considerable degree, of course, the White House had made clear its intentions. But there were a number of specifics, like the minimum wage change, that were not predicted or forseen. So yes, the Republicans have to respond broadly, not specifically. 

I really don't understand why the current state of our union didn't impact the elections last year. For the most part, we have the same President and Congress facing the same impass. We have no budget and the government is on the verge of shutting down. It is clear that the way things have been run isn't working, but I heard nothing but party line politics and proposals that won't pass the current congress. We need someone to take a different approach to get us out of this current stalemate.

Think of what is being recommended here: "someone to take a different approach to get us out of this" mess. This is the "white knight" theory of politics. Can this reader or anyone else tell me the name of a previous president of the United States who played this role effectively? One man who saved us?

Lincoln. Period. This just doesn't happen. Our government reflects US.  "We have seen the enemy," as Walt Kelly put it memorably in a Pogo comic strip, "and it is us."  That's what democracy means. This is our government, our responsibility. No saviour is going to appear on the horizon to save us from ourselves.

The current situation in the country of course was reflected in the election result. The country rejected the modern Republican party.  Even in House elections, overall, Democrats got more than a million votes MORE than Republicans got. Republicans won the House thanks to their successful gerrymandering of districts.  

The Dems caused the housing bubble? George W deregulating the mortgage industry had nothing to do with it? Does the GOP really think the public memory is that short or that we are that stupid?

Rubio blamed wrongheaded "government housing policies," I think. My question is different than yours: Can Senator Rubio really believe this? Did he pay any attention to what happened during the housing bubble and its bursting in his own state, one of the biggest victims of the Great Crash? 

Mr. Kaiser, I'm a big Obama supporter and grateful everyday that he is in the WH rather than someone else. But to be honest I'm very much with your first questioner. I dipped it and out of the speech, but was more drawn to the Food Network that to anything happening in Washington. And sadly, Rubio's awkward water moment seems to be getting as much press as the speeches themselves. I find that depressing.

Thanks for the post.

It's so nice to have you back in the WaPo's chat forum. Your chats are well-considered and well-mannered. Wish you came around here more often.

I love thse apple-polishers! 

Once again our president offers wonderful ,desirable goals with no method of paying for them. While I agree an increase in the minimum wage will benefit those now earning the existing, the loss of jobs to that segment of our employed will overshadow benefits as more and more jobs go overseas to the foreign sweatshops and prisons. His ability of oration is truly outstanding., but it's time to dump the political smokescreens by ALL our elected in Washington . Will the y EVER drop their own personal, political, self serving agendas,unite in governance and do the jobs they all pledged to do before being elected?? Maybe too much to ask but I'll keep prating for them all. ALL.

Note the phrase, "do the jobs they all pledged to do before being elected." This reader thinks they all promised to do what he or she would have them do in their campaigns. They did not.

We have a politics of factions, or interest groups.  We have a complicated society with many different components. We do not, and never could, agree on one simple definition of "the national interst" that would tell us just what do do in every instance. Comments like yours implying that if everyone just saw what you see, all would be well, just don't take into account the realities of our complicated society.

About half-way through, I found the speech boring (I'm an Obama supporter) and uninspiring.

Hope you had a good night's sleep.

Where did Mitt Romney watch the State of the Union speech and what was his reaction?

Very good question, and I have no idea what the answers are. Romney is disappearing faster than...Michael Dukakis! He's just gone. 

And yet hs has to be thinking every day about those big crowds that seemed to love him so, about those two years when everything he said made news.  What happened? He must ask himself. No fun .

If Rubio is supposed to be the "savoir" of the republican party, then they better start praying. I don't think he came across well at all, perspiring and not articulate. Obama is a hard act to follow, I admit, but Rubio came across as amateur hour.

And an amateur with nothing fresh or compelling to say. I agree with you.

1) Has anyone ever done a comprehensive study as to how many ideas/promises in SOTU addresses actually panned out in reality? 2) Very interesting interview on NPR last night - of which I heard only a tiny bit. Maybe another reader can chime in and give us details. Essentially the person being interviewed was a congressman who had been in Congress a number of years ago, then left politics, but is now back in DC as a Congressman. The specifics he gave about the differences in work schedules then and now were astounding; basically it is unsurprising that Congress never seems to get any work done, as they are rarely ever in Washington and actually working!

Don't know of any such study, but you and I both know what it would show if it had been done, don't we?  Some of the ideas become reality; some don't.  That is how the system works.

I did not hear the interview you mention, but the point made by this former and repeat member of Congress is a very good one. It too features in my new book on Congress.  The congressional work week, typically, is Tuesday through Thursday.  A tiny fraction of members make their principal residence in the Washington area; they flee for home every single weekend. When I was a young reporter covering the Senate in the 1970s, nearly every Senator had his family in Washington. Senators socialized together across party lines, played golf across party lines, rooted for local high-school teams on which their kids played across party lines, etc. It was a different, and in my view better world. This is one of the many impediments that make it so hard for our Congress to be effective today.

Why was the biggest issue of our generation not addressed in any substanative terms? Going on $17 trillion and there was no plan mentioned to get this under control in the State of the Union. That issue and the economy/jobs are the only thing people want to understand and we heard almost nothing in the way of a roadmap that congress can execute to get this problem dealt with.

Thanks for posting. Obama did address deficits in a revealing way, I thought. He said this was not the time for "austerity politics." He defended $4.5 trillion in cuts and new taxes over the next decade as adequate for now. Many economists would agree with him; many others would not. I don't think this is as open-and-shut an issue as you obviously do.

Bob, Please explain your view on the ultimate size and role of our federal government. Also, please explain how much as a percentage of your gross income, you are comfortable paying as federal tax. Thanks you

This of course is a really important question from which we all instinctively flee.  I spent the holidays in France this year (a measure of my own good fortune), where the government consumes fifty percent of the gross domestic product--half.  We are nearer a quarter, a huge difference. But the French love their way of life: very cheap and good health care; free education; the best internal train network in Europe or anywhere other than, perhaps, Japan; five or six weeks of paid vacation; long paid parently leave, etc etc. And President Holand is trying to impose a new 60 percent top income tax rate.

I don't like paying taxes any more than you do, but I would have no trouble at all paying what I paid under Bill Clinton, when, don't forget, we created a budget surplus--just a dozen years ago. Our taxes are too low. They do not cover the government and the entitlements we have right now. And the taxes on rich people are the lowest of any industrial democracy BY FAR. We--I--can pay more.

I don't have a personal view of how big a government we ought to have. I think a lot of what the government does today is unnecessary, some of it wildly unnecessary--farm price supports are an excellent example.  Ourdefense budget, so much higher than the rest of the world's combined (!),  could also be trimmed, in my view. 

It's a teleprompter, looks like a mirror.

Thanks for this. You understood what that reader was asking about better than I did. Yes, there are two things that look like tablets on each side of the president. Both contain his speech in big, easy-to-read letters.

I didn't listen with acute care, but I don't recall him speaking to the efforts nationwide to roll back womens' right to birth control, choices, and equal pay for equal work. he DID mention the equal pay in another speech; this was missing last night for me. discrimination based on gender is, sadly, still alive and thriving. and if the right (leaning, not "correct" right) had their way, we would be back in the days of women having no options for birth control, never mind legal, safe, abortions. while not pro-abortion, i am definitely not anti-choice.

I don't want to be mean here, but I'm impressed by your willingness to 1) admit "I didn't listen with care", then accuse the president of skipping over your subject, when in fact he spoke firmly about women's rights and status in the speech to which you paid scant attention.

I sometimes think we are all suffering from A.D.D. in modern America. We (I include myself) to0 often just don't pay attention. Why is that I wonder?


I would say that two moments from last night will be remembered when the details of the laundry list are forgotten. The first memorable moment will be the President's dramatic elevation of gun control to a national place of prominence. It was rational, but also emotionally shattering. The second will be Senator Rubio's quenching of his thirst. Did he not get coaching on self presentation? He is a seemingly bright fellow, but he came across as dull and silly by comparison to the POTUS. Has there ever been a case where the response to the SOTU was given higher marks than the SOTU itself?

We have shortchanged gun control in this chat; yours is the first post to even mention it. I agree with you. "They deserve a vote" will be remembered. I think Obama has an interesting game going on gun control. He seems to sense that if he can get some common-sense reforms before the House and Senate, it will be much harder than members now hope for them to be ignored--or defeated. This was the only subject in the speech to get the emotional treatment, and, in part because of the additions to the audience and the green Newtown ribbons, it made a big impact I think.

I don't know anything about Rubio's preparations, and I can't think of an example of a response that got higher marks than the speech, but I bet there is one.  

Did anyone else notice when President Obama was walking up the aisle after his speech, when he got to his former Illinois co-Senator (and mentor) Dick Durbin, that instead of making a huge display of himself Durbin pointed to someone else across the aisle that he wanted the President to greet? Now THAT'S what I call a secure ego!

This will be the last one today. Political ego is of course one of the phenomena of this city that colors its life every hour of every day. I am pleased to be able to report that your reading of Dick Durbin is absolutely accurate. He is totally comfortble in his own skin. He is a student of American history who reads serious books for fun--not your average Senator, in other words. His relationship with Obama would be worthy of a long article or short book. He mentored Obama in the Senate and before, and they seem to have a real mutual admiration society going on.

Thanks to all for contributing and for reading. I will return. 

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Robert G. Kaiser
Robert G. Kaiser is Associate Editor of The Washington Post.
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