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BOTH SIDES NOW: Did SOTU Reveal an Educator/Organizer Going Big to Reduce Inequality and Transform Politics?

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By Mark Green

In his State of the Union (and previously Inaugural), we witness the president build his progressive vision for the middle class on two tent poles -- democracy-for-all and citizenship-by-all. From his announcement speech in Springfield in 2007 (Lincoln "tells us there is power in words") through his re-inaugural oath on the Lincoln bible to a SOTU grounded in popular proposals ("with public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed" [AL]), it's hard to ignore Obama's embrace of another lanky, literate lawyer and Illinoisan.


Were Palin and Giuliani right that, at heart, Obama is a community organizer and liberal professor?

*On SOTU Philosophically. Eliot agrees that Obama's State of the Union reflected "his belief in a renewed government purpose, almost communitarian in philosophy" by stressing both opportunity and responsibility. "It's not clear though that his programs match up to that or can get enacted." Mary, to the contrary, thinks that it was "worse than I expected. Yes it was less snarky [than his inaugural] and sounded centrist. But while he talks growth, he offers decay. And there was nothing new in it."

Eliot adds that this SOTU does augur a different president in his second term, using executive orders to go around Congress -- like retroactively applying Clean Air Act standards to coal-fired plants -- and communicating more directly to the public than he did previously. But he'll only achieve an historic level of realigning our politics and policies "if medium family income is higher when he leaves office than when he entered it."

*On SOTU Programmatically. There was a long list of ideas, old and new, that the president proposed: pre-school, minimum wage, deficits, tax reform, manufacturing innovation hubs, high-schools to jobs, college tuition scorecards, mortgage refinancings, immigration reform, climate change, infrastructure repair, green jobs, voting lines.

Spitzer and Matalin assess several of them. They agree that universal pre-K for four-year olds in partnership with states is morally and economically a winner; Mary notes that, based on a program in her native New Orleans, it's a hard kid-to-kid task involving parent training and psychological services in schools as well.

There's consensus too on tax code reform that could generate another $700 billion or so over the next decade in deficit reduction or new investments. Here Mary parts company with congressional leaders Boehner and McConnell who have reversed their earlier support now that tax rates went up on the wealthy. Eliot also wishes that Obama would take the lead by specifically declaring the five loopholes he wants to close.

They also agree on an infrastructure program to fix deteriorating bridges and on an increase in the minimum wage though Mary prefers they be done more at the state level. Eliot stresses that there's been a federal minimum wage since the New Deal for a reason.

*On SOTU Tactically. It's axiomatic that you try to stay on offense in politics -- if your opponent has an Achilles heel, you keep shooting arrows into it. So what do they think of the way Obama kept up the pressure on congressional Republicans: "Congress has to do its job "... Congress has 'to keep our peoples' government open and pay our bills on time" and the victims of gun violence "deserve a vote"? Eliot thinks that his repeated, powerful crescendo on gun votes was "the greatest rhetorical moment in State of the Union history." Mary disparaged all that as "leadership by theater" -- interrupted Eliot, "but it was good theater!" And she added that the president was unlikely to get most of what he was asking for.

Host: It appears that Obama II will be much different from Obama I. In plain sight now is a self-assured leader aiming high to forge an enduring new majority and restore upward mobility. That may have looked like a legislative address to Congress but it was as much an address to the country to move or ratify opinion on popular issues. Why not? Presumably he didn't seek to be reelected on order to pre-compromise with ideological assailants. For a leader with a monumental self-regard, here's the theory: if St. George had slain a dragon fly rather than a dragon, would we remember him?

Historians may later track four speeches that together laid out Obama's intended progressive legacy: his American Jobs Act speech to a joint session of Congress in September, 2011; Osawatomie, Kansas TR speech in December 2011; Inaugural, January, 2013; State of the Union, January 2013. Combining these talks, his communications skills, social media tools (Organizing for Action's millions of twitter followers), convincing reelection and demographic trends, he's now in position to shift our politics in four years in ways reminiscent of perhaps FDR or at least Reagan.

Obama's opposition, however, is fierce, well-funded and so far the "fever" hasn't broken (though it may have gone down a few degrees on taxes and immigration). But if he succeeds in exiting two wars, reversing economic decline, expanding health care and getting on the winning side of the culture wars -- aided by a divided and nihilistic GOP -- he may well build the final span in the bridge that Bill Clinton began to the 21st Century.

*Rubio's Response: 'Jindalized'? Carville and Greenberg call it a "debacle" in terms of content and presentation. Is the SOTU response slot becoming like the cover of Sports Illustrated? Or is he still a Latino Obama for the next generation?

Mary scoffs at those who criticize Senator Rubio's words or lunge for the water ("Don't worry Senator," cracked Stephen Colbert, "nobody will remember... your speech"). "He has appealing market-based ideas for the 21st century like Cruz and Ryan," says Mary, "and can give a spontaneous speech that brings audiences to tears." Another consensus: Eliot thinks that he's sufficiently big and appealing to overcome that unpresidential boy-stealing-the-cookie look and even his "demonstrably wrong economic arguments."

Then: if they had to guess who's a more likely GOP nominee in 2016 between two "It" Republicans this month, Christie or Rubio, they agree that the latter probably fits what the party believes and will be looking for. They also concur that Jeb Bush would be stronger than either of them. The Host urges them to urge him to run because of how radiogenically appealing that dynastic contest would be -- Clinton-Bush, again!

Host: Rubio's content seemed completely old school and not in the moment (Solyndra? Obamacare?). He had, in Joan Walsh's phrase, a 21st century name spouting 19th century ideas. And, however unfair, bad TV moments can either evaporate or endure based on context and later performance. The Dean Scream and Bentsen's debate evisceration of Quayle stuck to those two politicians; Bill Clinton's seemingly interminal introduction of Dukakis at the '88 Convention was quickly erased by his next evening's appearance on Carson with hour-glass in hand. And there's this shed analysis from Ari Berman on MSNBC: "If your rise is based on nothing, your fall may be based on nothing."

*Quick Takes: Sotomayor's Story, Aging Out, GPS for Kids. Spitzer and Matalin here trans-ideologically concur that: Justice Sotomayor has an inspirational back story and welcoming manner, which has helped her become a role model and her book, My Beloved World, become #1; and they like the idea of using GPS to keeping track of young children to avoid the parental panic of when they're lost in a supermarket, which has happened to both our panelists.

Last, while there's no one age that's automatically politically disqualifying, it was probably smart of Senator Lautenberg to hang up his spikes at 89. As for whether Hillary's 69, Biden's 73, or Jerry Brown's 78 in 2016 is too old to run for president, neither had an opinion they would share... although Eliot expressed the widespread view that Bob Dole (at 72) seemed not dynamic compared to Clinton in 1996.

Mark Green is the creator and host of Both Sides Now.

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