SOTU – signs that transformation is finally on the way

Last night’s speech offered a realistic and encouraging vision of the future. It was delivered in a statesmanlike tone, was partisan in the best sense of the term – substantive, specific, based on conviction – yet its delivery addressed its primary opponent in a pointedly respectful, exemplary fashion.

On substance, it was also a serious speech.

Anchored upon one Big Idea, tax reform based on a flattened tax code – i.e. a decipherable, transparent tax system that’s harder to exploit, avoid or lobby – this speech took the initiative in shaping the urgently overdue conversation American politics is failing to have: How can America fund its future in a way that is fair to all, shares benefits among all but also demands sacrifice from all?

A flattened tax code is an argument with many flaws but it’s at least an argument, particularly in this era of perfectly rational left and right wing popular anger, that offers a new and workable response to core fiscal and even core legitimacy questions.

This was a leader’s speech.

It’s a shame then, at least for this Obama supporter, that it was delivered by Mitch Daniels as a rebuttal to President Obama’s STOU.

In contrast, President Obama’s State of the Union speech was designed to induce supporters like this one into reacting like a kid who in the run-up to Christmas morning, receives a letter of intent from Santa; a promise that all the goodies are available but we need to bill the rich neighbour’s tab.

Liberals and progressives may disagree; of course – they’ll argue – the 2012 SOTU was an election year speech written by focus groups for (progressive) lobby groups. Isn’t this reasonable and rational?

Yes – if your name is President Hillary Clinton and your base is heavily dependent on the working poor and middle class. And you actually believe that the problem with a rigged tax code is less the rigging and more the beneficiaries.

But this was President Obama’s SOTU. Hillary Clinton was defeated, was she not, by the promise – and promises – of the self-styled Transformation President?

Obama may have little to fear from nominee Gingrich and clearly this speech was designed to hobble the poster star of the One Percenters: Mr 13%, Mitt Romney. But when the transformative rhetoric – and substance – is coming from the GOP’s Mitch Daniels it’s a bit, well, disappointing.

But, at least long term, there’s reason to be encouraged too. Roll on 2016.

Strategic Communications Consultant, located Washington DC