Official Obama Decoder: State of the Union Edition

Remember the scene in Annie Hall in which Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are talking and there are sub-titles indicating what they really were thinking? I regularly wish such a thing were available when listening to politicians speak. Not always, because frankly most of the time that politicians speak the best filter is ignoring them ...

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

Remember the scene in Annie Hall in which Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are talking and there are sub-titles indicating what they really were thinking? I regularly wish such a thing were available when listening to politicians speak. Not always, because frankly most of the time that politicians speak the best filter is ignoring them altogether. But Barack Obama is the president of the United States, the country is ass deep in alligators and so his State of the Union address takes on special importance. 

We know he and his team have worked for weeks on the address. They have spent the past few days pre-gaming the press hoping to get the "Obama Does It Again: America Starts Believing in Change They Can Believe In ... Again!" story they really want. And we also know that every single phrase in the speech has been viewed through multiple lenses-impact on the media, impact on the left, impact on the right, impact on the center, impact on donors, impact on November 2010 election prospects ... well, you get the idea. With the pros in the White House you often get the sense they're looking at dozens of angles associated with any phrase or idea. It's not triangulation. That's so 1990s. It reeks of Dick Morris'a mouth full of toenail polish. Today we're dealing with polygonulation of a much richer sort. With three political factions, U.S. and foreign media, 50 states, the G20, Michelle, Malia, Sasha, the White House dog and the Sarah Palin's daughter Bristol, and Oprah that would make it octacontakaihenagonulation. (There's a change you can believe in.)

Anyway, to help cut through it all, we watched carefully as the president delivered his address and have selected ten key phrases in which the president said one thing but actually meant something else. Then, we added the real or alternative meaning. So now, you can truly understand.

Remember the scene in Annie Hall in which Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are talking and there are sub-titles indicating what they really were thinking? I regularly wish such a thing were available when listening to politicians speak. Not always, because frankly most of the time that politicians speak the best filter is ignoring them altogether. But Barack Obama is the president of the United States, the country is ass deep in alligators and so his State of the Union address takes on special importance. 

We know he and his team have worked for weeks on the address. They have spent the past few days pre-gaming the press hoping to get the "Obama Does It Again: America Starts Believing in Change They Can Believe In … Again!" story they really want. And we also know that every single phrase in the speech has been viewed through multiple lenses-impact on the media, impact on the left, impact on the right, impact on the center, impact on donors, impact on November 2010 election prospects … well, you get the idea. With the pros in the White House you often get the sense they’re looking at dozens of angles associated with any phrase or idea. It’s not triangulation. That’s so 1990s. It reeks of Dick Morris’a mouth full of toenail polish. Today we’re dealing with polygonulation of a much richer sort. With three political factions, U.S. and foreign media, 50 states, the G20, Michelle, Malia, Sasha, the White House dog and the Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol, and Oprah that would make it octacontakaihenagonulation. (There’s a change you can believe in.)

Anyway, to help cut through it all, we watched carefully as the president delivered his address and have selected ten key phrases in which the president said one thing but actually meant something else. Then, we added the real or alternative meaning. So now, you can truly understand.

And as for knowing what you yourself were really thinking while you watched, perhaps it’s best to return to Annie Hall in which Annie says "Well, to me, I mean it’s all instinctive. You know, I mean, I just try to feel it. You know, I try to get a sense of it and not think about it so much." But while she says it, the subtitles let us know what she (and you) are really thinking: "God, I hope he doesn’t turn out to be a schmuck like all the others." 

The following are not necessarily offered in the order they came in the speech:

1. "Despite our hardships, our union is strong. We do not give up. We do not quit."

This actually means: "Holy crap, what a mess. But let’s not panic. Please do not give up on me. Please do not quit on me now. It’s early yet…and look at this way, you could have elected John Edwards. Imagine where we’d all be then with the economy in the tank, the First Lady moving out and him having to turn the Situation Room into a nursery."

2. "We have to recognize that we face more than a deficit of dollars right now.  We face a deficit of trust — deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years."

This actually means: "We’ve got a gigantic deficit of dollars right now, but let’s change the subject. Let’s blame it on the past. I sure hope that you don’t notice that throughout this speech I blamed problems on the past like 9 or 10 times. Christ, I hope some nutjob pundit doesn’t dub this the "Blame It On the Past" speech tomorrow."

3. "To close that credibility gap we must take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue — to end the outsized influence of lobbyists, to do our work openly and to give our people the government they deserve."

This actually means: "By both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, I mean in Congress.  As for the ending the outsized influence of big money I sure do hope people weren’t watching Tim Geithner’s mugging on the Hill earlier today for being too cozy with Wall Street.  No seriously, I hate lobbyists. The guys that fund them, the donations they give, the issues they advance, those things I’m ok with. But lobbyists, I wouldn’t bend over to scrape them from my shoe."

4. "Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t."

This actually means: "Anything that pisses Rachel Maddow off this much has got to make centrists a little happier, right?  And where’s she going to go?  Who’s she going to vote for? Mitt Romney? Ahahahahahahhaha… I could appoint Bill O’Reilly Secretary of Banning Abortions and Distributing Assault Rifles to Schoolchildren and she would still have to vote for me.  As far as the families on a budget line goes, I hope no one does the math. We’re freezing 18 percent of the budget. And the rest we’re not touching. That’s like a family trying to balance its budget by cutting back on what it pays the paperboy."

5. "This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are."

This actually means: "See my little liberal friends, there’s something for you in here too. Oh sure, I know this reeks of Clinton era small ball and a kind of something-for-everyone approach. But hey, gay people, enjoy it … because in terms of my list of priorities going forward, you’re way behind big things like health care and fighting global warming and cutting the deficit and defeating terrorism and winning in Afghanistan and virtually none of those things are actually going to happen either."

6.  "Now, the price of college tuition is just one of the burdens facing the middle-class. That’s why last year I asked Vice President Biden to chair a task force on Middle-Class Families."

This actually means: "So, ok, here’s the one area we are going to spend.  Jobs for the middle class. Tax breaks for the middle class.  We can’t afford anything.  Except for programs for the people who will determine whether we get to keep our jobs.  Ha…we’re part of our own jobs program."

7. "Now let’s be clear — I did not choose to tackle this issue to get some legislative victory under my belt. And by now it should be fairly obvious that I didn’t take on health care because it was good politics."

This actually means: "Let’s be clear, while I did take this on because I wanted a big legislative victory and because I thought it was good politics, this dog is clearly not going to hunt.  So let’s just walk it back. Did I say I wanted this done by the State of the Union?  What I meant was the first bill I want on my desk this year is a jobs bill." 

8. "Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections. Well I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and that’s why I’m urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong."

This actually means: "Geesh, this is a bit awkward. They’re sitting right there. And they don’t look happy. The reason I’m all for separation of powers is that if they were any closer they’d bite me on the leg. And frankly Alito looks like he has rabies."

9. "Throughout our history, no issue has united this country more than our security."

This actually means: "Ok, I have to get to national security for a few minutes. Admittedly, I am going to do about 8 minutes out of a 75 minute speech on foreign policy tonight. Pity because I really am getting us out of Iraq, that’s a pretty big deal. I wish I could talk more about this stuff … but right now, America seems to want a time out from the planet earth."

10."Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths. We can do what’s necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what’s best for the next generation. But I also know this: if people had made that decision fifty years ago or one hundred years ago or two hundred years ago, we wouldn’t be here tonight."

That meant: "Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths. We can do what’s necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what’s best for the next generation. But I also know this: if people had made that decision fifty years ago or one hundred years ago or two hundred years ago, we wouldn’t be here tonight."

But as I said, all politicians have multiple meanings with their speeches. Overall, the speech was not bad. No grand new ideas. But overall … not a bad domestic stump speech that was particularly effective when it turned to condemning the dysfunctional mood of Washington at the moment. Admittedly, if you’re a foreign policy fan, there really wasn’t much here … but Bush was all national security all the time and that didn’t turn out so well for anyone. Grade: B.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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