‘I’m also issuing a new goal for America,” declared President Obama at his State of the Union on Tuesday. We’ll come to the particular “goal” he “issued” momentarily, but before we do, consider that formulation: Did you know the president of the United States is now in the business of “issuing goals” for his subjects to live up to?
Strange how the monarchical urge persists even in a republic two-and-a-third centuries old. Many commentators have pointed out that the modern State of the Union is in fairly obvious mimicry of the Speech from the Throne that precedes a new legislative session in British Commonwealth countries and continental monarchies, but this is to miss the key difference. When the Queen or her viceroy reads a Throne Speech in Westminster, Ottawa, or Canberra, it’s usually the work of a government with a Parliamentary majority: In other words, the stuff she’s announcing is actually going to happen. That’s why, lest any enthusiasm for this or that legislative proposal be detected, the apolitical monarch overcompensates by reading everything in as flat and unexpressive a monotone as possible. Underneath the ancient rituals — the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod getting the door of the House of Commons slammed in his face three times — it’s actually a very workmanlike affair.
The State of the Union is the opposite. The president gives a performance, extremely animatedly, head swiveling from left-side prompter to right-side prompter, continually urging action now: “Let’s start right away. We can get this done. . . . We can fix this. . . . Now is the time to do it. Now is the time to get it done.” And at the end of the speech, nothing gets done, and nothing gets fixed, and, after a few days’ shadowboxing between admirers and detractors willing to pretend it’s some sort of serious legislative agenda, every single word of it is forgotten until the next one.
In that sense, like Beyoncé lip-synching the National Anthem at the inauguration, the State of the Union embodies the decay of America’s political institutions into a simulacrum of responsible government rather than the real thing, and a simulacrum ever more divorced from the real issues facing the country. “Over the last few years, both parties have worked together to reduce the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion,” said the president. Really? Who knew? “Now we need to finish the job.” Just one more push is all it’ll take.
What’s he on about? The annual “deficit” has been over a trillion for every year of Obama’s presidency. The cumulative deficits have, in fact (to use a quaint expression), increased the national debt by $6 trillion. Yet Obama claims Washington has “reduced the deficit” by $2.5 trillion and all we need to do is “finish the job.” Presumably this is a reference to allegedly agreed deficit reductions over the next decade, or quarter-century, or whatever. In other words, Obama has saved $2.5 trillion of Magical Fairyland money, which happily frees him up to talk about the really critical issues like high-speed rail and green-energy solutions. These concepts, too, exist mainly in Magical Fairyland: If you think Obama-approved taxpayer-funded “high-speed rail” means you’ll be able to board a train that goes at French or Japanese speeds, I’ve a high-speed rail bridge to Brooklyn to sell you.
Take, for example, the “goal” Obama “issued”: “Let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years.” What does that even mean? How would you even know when you’ve accomplished that “goal”? What percentage of energy used by my home and business is “wasted”? In what sense? Who says? Who determines that? Is it 37 percent? Twenty-three percent? So we’re going to cut it down to 18.5 per cent or 11.5 percent by 2033, is that the “goal”?
Barack Obama is not the first president to “issue” “goals.” John F. Kennedy also did, although he was more mindful of the constitutional niceties:
“This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”
That’s a goal! No wiggle room. A monkey on the moon won’t count, nor an unmanned drone. We need an actual living American standing on the surface of the moon holding Old Glory by December 31, 1969.
Whoever’s writing Obama’s speeches these days either has a tin ear — you don’t “issue” goals, you set them — or he has a very refined sense of the ersatz nature of contemporary political discourse. Old-school monarchs issued “edicts.” One thinks of King Charles the Bald in his Edict of Pistres in a.d. 864, announcing among other things that henceforth selling a horse to a Viking would be punishable by death. No doubt the odd equine transaction slipped through the regulatory net, but historians seem to agree that the sale of mounts to Norsemen certainly diminished. And more to the point his courtiers would have thought Charles the Bald was an even bigger schmuck than they already did if, instead of an edict, he was issuing a new goal to reduce the sale of horses to Vikings by 50 percent by the year 884.