This morning as I cleaned out the spam folder in my email box, I glanced at a message from team Obama with the subject line: "We Do Big Things." Yep. No doubt about that. Unfortunately--like a lot of things the Obama Administration says about itself--"big" can mean a host of different things to different people. We've got big government, big and sweeping changes to health care, and big symbolic speeches with lots of big talk. Talk about misreading the moment! By now, I don't think it's out of place to wonder aloud about the strength of the American people's taste for "big" things. Yuval Levin
is wondering too. For all their talk of "progress" he thinks the Obama team gave strong indication of their intention to set up camp in the past--at least when it comes to understanding public mood and, what's even more important, public need. Obama's speech--with its talk of solar panels, high speed rail, and high speed internet--seemed like a re-tread of all the silly bits from Clinton and Bush SOTU speeches. Is that really what we need to hear right now? This is 2011. We have a debt crisis looming. We can't afford to buy this kind of big thing, Mr. President. Now is not the time to live large.
In striking contrast to the President's speech, Paul Ryan's words spoke to us of "hard" things. We have to face up to hard truths and hard realities. These are the kinds of things that loom large in the minds of Americans today--this is the stuff that is "kind of a big deal" as the kids like to say. And it had better be big on our horizon.
Yet all the coverage I saw last night about Ryan's speech focused on really, really small
things. Were his eyes bloodshot? Is he too young to be taken
seriously? Mark Shields and Michael Gerson
seemed to want to make a big deal out of what they called the "contrast" between Ryan's "5 minutes till midnight" kind of conservatism and
's "5 minutes till dawn" and Reagan-esque (gag!
-ed.) approach in the SOTU speech. This latter, they suggest, is the more politically salient and savvy presentation. I think, like Levin, that this remains to be seen. Moreover, I don't think speaking hard truths, as Ryan did, necessarily means that you are full of doom and gloom or that you are off your game and forgetting that the American people like a can-do positive attitude. They seem to forget that there is a thing the American people hate more than they love a sunny disposition: BS. If there is something that we "can do", please--for God's sake--tell us what it is!
For all his talk of a "Sputnik
moment, Obama seemed to me to be more of a piece with the mindset that
created Sputnik than that which created Apollo. Sputnik, in one sense was a big thing.
But, in fact, Sputnik was the size of a beachball . . . and it, what,
circled the earth? It was not, in fact, a big thing because it was not
a thing born out of freedom--the hardest of all things. Yet because we were
free and because we were inspired to do
hard things, we landed on the moon. That was both a hard and a big thing. But it did
not come because we were obsessed with looking big. It came because we
knew we had to be harder if we wanted to preserve our liberty.
will note, also, that unless I am mistaken Obama said not a word about
liberty and its connection to innovation last night. Indeed, his single
reference to "freedom" came in a throw-away paragraph about the
"And so we must defeat determined enemies, wherever
they are, and build coalitions that cut across lines of region and race
and religion. And America's moral example must always shine for all who
yearn for freedom and justice and dignity. And because we've begun this
work, tonight we can say that American leadership has been renewed and
America's standing has been restored."
Of course, "freedom and justice and dignity" (like "big") can mean a lot of things in this context; none of which need have anything to do with liberty properly understood.
The symbolism of last night (though, I suspect, something that DID play well in most places and Peoria) was a fitting testimony to the confused jumble of nothingness that is the Obama Presidency. Black and white ribbons (thank you, John Boehner for at least displaying yours with a devil-may-care indifference); Democrats and Republicans holding hands; fewer and seemingly only half-hearted standing ovations and the ever-present vignette of some poor son-of-a-gun used as punctuation when no salient point could be mustered. Take away from it what you will. The meaning is yours to determine . . . or not.
In any event, welcome to the opening salvo of the 2012 election. It's old school Obama: the Disarming Dissembler. Hope and Change will be replaced with Hope and Progress--or something like that. And Change was never more needed.