Obama's State of the Union: Strong, But Scattershot

President Obama's State of the Union address was sprawling, as State of the Unions tend to be. It was sprawling not only in its ideas, but also in its tone. Obama quipped with lawmakers and then chided them. He poked fun at his hope-and-change reputation and then ended with nothing but more hopeful promises to change. As the head of the the federal government, he spent paragraphs explaining what's so wrong with the federal government. He described an America both recovering, and in crisis -- a nation ready to move forward, but led by a government caught in cyclical inertia. God bless us, indeed!

Megan wrote: "Let us not mince words, nor even chop them loosely: most State of the Unions are, well, completely useless." Absolutely right. But in deference to this broad speech, here are five scattershot observations about the State of the Union:

1) Barack Obama is a Secret Republican
Well, not really. But he praised off-shore drilling and nuclear power plants. He gushed over small-businesses (14 mentions of the the term "small business"!) and glorified entrepreneurs. He roared about American competitiveness, and even threw in a dash of nationalism. As Joshua Green wrote last night, Obama sounded like a better Republican than some Republicans in parts of the speech.

2) So, Are We Counting Jobs or Not?
-- The White House on January 12:  No more counting jobs saved or created, because it's not possible, practically, or politically winning.
-- President Obama last night: "Because of the steps we took, there are about two million Americans working right now who would otherwise be unemployed." Huh?

3) Who's Afraid of the Bank Tax?
-- As Obama talked the bank tax and the camera panned to sullen-faced Republicans, Megan got a scoop:

As President Obama baited Republicans about their opposition to new taxes on the banking industry, the pool camera (helpfully?) cut to a shot of Republicans, who weren't clapping. An influential Democrat e-mails: "The footage of every R sitting when Obama talked about bank tax is going into every ad we do in 2010."

It's unclear to me what Republicans gain by campaigning against the most populist elements of financial regulation. I'm with Megan all the way on this issue.The bank tax is good populist politics, but it's a confused short-term policy. Obama presents the tax as a way to recoup the bank bailout money, but we didn't lose TARP money on the banks. We lost TARP money on AIG and Detroit. So the justification for the tax is a small lie. If the White House wants to tax liabilities over a certain limit to discourage excessive liabilities, then that's a part of financial regulation that shouldn't be dressed up as a one-time-money-grab.

4) Vagueness on Health Care
Just before the speech, my colleague Dan Indiviglio told me: I'd guess that what the market wants from this speech is certainty. We didn't get it on health care. Obama called health care reform necessary -- but also implicitly secondary to the jobs bill. He defended the cause, but not the hotly contested specifics of the bill. Not sure he moved the dial, unless he gets a general boost after the speech and a rising tide of Obama lifts the health care boat.

5) Vagueness on Jobs
The jobs plan that Obama previewed in the State of the Union didn't have much detail, either. It was mostly broad strokes: Tax rebates for green energy, small business credits, infrastructure spending, and slashing capital gains taxes on small business investment to zero. I wonder if this is the right approach after a lack of specificity from the White House was a key feature of much-delayed, now-imperiled health care reform.