Does one await a presidential State of the Union address with keen anticipation? It's like saying one looks forward to taking a niece to "The Nutcracker." The last time I truly enjoyed one — the speech, not the ballet — was Bill Clinton's in 1998, and it wasn't because of anything he said. It was his terrific aplomb, despite the fact that the Monica Lewinsky scandal was breaking over his head. He got a bounce of 10 points, from 59 to 69 percent popular approval.
The message was clear. We the people couldn't care less about Lewinsky. In fact, we the people thoroughly approved. The following year, the U.S. Senate was trying him for impeachment, after months of steady servings in the press of Lewinsky's semen-stained dress, and here was Clinton as bouncy as ever, rock solid at 69 percent.
Normally, the American people don't set much stock by State of the Union addresses. Half the times Ronald Reagan — "The Great Communicator" — gave the annual speech across his two terms in office, he promptly sank in the polls by three or four points.
By all rights, Obama should be a natural at the job. The desired mix is inspirational — his forte — and notionally programmatic, though the history books are knee-deep in empty pledges made on such occasions. But somehow the methodical rhythms of Obama's high-minded eloquence have a narcotic effect on me.
Last year, he said the American people did "big things," omitting to qualify this with the fact that mostly they're big stupid things. This year, the menu seemed to be a potpourri of things big and small. The sort Clinton could gabble about by the hour: retraining schemes and public/corporate partnerships.
Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, there was a ringing pledge to prosecute those responsible for the mortgage crisis. No doubt it was a defensive reaction to a recent Reuters expose that suggested that the failure of the Department of Justice to launch any foreclosure fraud prosecutions during Obama's first term might have something to do with the fact that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the head of the Justice Department's criminal division, Lanny Breuer, were partners for years at a huge Washington law firm, Covington and Burling, that represented big banks at the center of alleged foreclosure fraud.
Then we were back with "green energy," though not the vast program pledged last year; then an abrupt switch to the bad business of teenagers dropping out of high school, a swipe at the oil companies and lastly, a paean to the core national achievement of 2011 — the killing of Osama bin Laden, which Obama rather tastelessly used as his finale on the theme of American unity.
The whole 65-minute speech will be forgotten in a week. It would have been far better if Obama had simply read out selected portions of Mitt Romney's tax returns, which the Mormon millionaire released yesterday with spectacularly bad timing.
As expected, the returns showed that Romney is a very rich man who doesn't pay taxes at anywhere near the rate of much poorer Americans. In 2010, he had a gross income of $21.6 million, for which he paid taxes of $3 million — a rate of 13.9 percent. Income from investments here is taxed at rates far lower than income earned in wages.
In 2010, Newt Gingrich earned more than $3.1 million, and paid just under $1 million in federal tax, a rate of about 31 percent — a fact he will no doubt emphasize in the final debate before the Florida primary reaches its climax next Tuesday. Right now, Gingrich is ahead in the polls, with his campaign chest boosted by another $5 million from the Adelsons in Las Vegas about whom I wrote last week. Romney could get whacked again. The race for the Republican nomination won't be over for a long while.
One big question is: Is there some undisclosed reason why Gingrich quit not only his leadership role as speaker but also his House seat on Jan. 3, 1999? Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi is saying she knows something and that Gingrich can never be the nominee. What does she know?
While the Republican primaries drag on, Obama can work on his stump speech. He needs to sharpen up his act. Will he come up with a truly populist economic proposal instead of the wallpaper of last night's address? That would entail a big hike in the minimum wage; a level playing field for union organizing and contract bargaining; a trade policy that helps U.S. manufacturing; an onslaught on the power of the financial sector. Dream on.
Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.