Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo's contribution to the American political lexicon was that dictum that you campaign in poetry but govern in prose. And so it was for President Obama's State of the Union address and the Republican two half responses.
First, the President. One take was that he has now shown himself as a pragmatic progressive, and this seems fair enough. There were no major program proposals, no costly new initiatives.
Another take was that he was moving to the center in the wake of the November elections and the Republican controlled House. Again, fair enough. His emphasis on education, a clear area of possible bipartisan cooperation, his call for (modest) tort reform and his willingness to make (small) changes in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) were all moves to the center.
But there was something more. He was in campaign poetry mode. For the first time since the 2008 campaign, the policies advocated had a common theme "Winning the future". The emphasis on innovation, infrastructure and education were all tied together around that theme. Even little, unexpected points such as bring ROTC back to "elite" campuses and reorganizing the executive branch were future oriented.
But while he alluded to the need for greater cuts and difficult choices, he did not present the stark facts of our long-term deficit problem or call for the shared sacrifice needed to address it. True, he gave a nod to his bipartisan deficit reduction commission, but it was not a ringing endorsement. It appears we will have to wait longer, hopefully not too long, for his plan on long-term measures, including the need to deal with entitlement programs. Two cheers for the President, or maybe one and a half.
The prose and likely the partisanship will come in a few weeks when the fiscal year 2012 budget is submitted to Congress.
By contrast the official GOP response by Rep. Paul Ryan (WI) was sparse poetry as he campaigned for severe budget cuts It was a welcomed call for the nation to face the looming fiscal crisis of exploding deficits in far starker terms than President Obama. And he acknowledged that the problems were the fault of both parties' past actions. But then he pulled back from giving any specifics of where cuts should be made beyond vague cuts in discretionary spending. His public positions on how to cut Social Security and Medicare were not mentioned, probably because they are not greeted warmly by his GOP comrades or retirees. He will have to bring on the prose in his capacity as House Budget Committee chairman. The struggle for a fiscal year 2011 continuing resolution will be a warm up for the 2012 budget fight.
The other half response was from Rep. Michelle Bachmann (MN) to her Tea Party faithful. Her points were similar to Ryan's but her tone was much harsher. As befits her history-challenged style, she blamed the current situation entirely on the Obama administration ignoring the doubling of the national debt , the launch of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the initial bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, the collapse of Wall Street and the beginning of the "Great Recession" under President George W. Bush. Her style is provocateur, neither poetry nor prose.
And, as is typical for conservatives, both GOP responders were looking backward, not forward: repeal thee ACA, return to 2008 spending levels, undo whatever can be undone.
So it was ultimately an unsatisfying night for those of us who were looking for a clear call to a shared sacrifice agenda tied to an acknowledgement that entitlement programs must be addressed aggressively and revenues raised soon. It is disappointing, but not surprising that no one was willing to go first into that thicket. But someone will have to go there soon to start the national dialogue.
A final thought. Might the single-minded focus on economic issues soon run into the brewing cauldron of Middle East unrest and divert the president's attention when we can least afford it?