The meaning of words still matter beyond how they sound.
It’s easy to forget that listening to President Barack Obama sometimes, like during the State of the Union address on Tuesday.
While watching it, I kept thinking of friends’ language poetry class in college, where the point was to string words together in a pleasing manner purposely disconnected from meaning — in order to create a new meaning.
Those poems baffled me then just as President Obama’s speech did the other night because reality is so different than the one he talked about, and the contradictions overflowed. For example:
He wants a country that continues to put its “collective shoulder to the wheel of progress.” And he told Congress, “I’m eager to work with all of you.” But if that doesn’t work out, he said, “Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.” Apparently too impatient to even try the togetherness strategy he revered as America’s historic model, he vowed in coming weeks to sign an executive order raising the federal minimum wage on new federal contracts.
At another point, he praised America’s energy boom and how there is “more oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world — the first time that’s happened in nearly 20 years.”
Listening to him would have made one think that this is something he personally championed, but the increase is no thanks to him. During President Obama’s tenure oil and gas exploration on federal land has fallen, expanding instead on state and private land. And then there is the Keystone XL pipeline project stalled by his administration. It would connect Alberta’s tar sands with refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast via a nearly 1,200-mile pipeline, and help to reduce dependence on oil imports from unfriendly nations.
He claimed the benefits of Obamacare by telling the story of Amanda Shelley, a woman he said would have gone bankrupt if not for the law. But he conspicuously ignored why so many people have been dropped from their insurance, lost doctors or won’t sign up despite the federal website being fixed.
He pointed to Misty DeMars, a mother of two from Oak Park, Ill., who until last year was always gainfully employed, as an example of why unemployment benefits should be extended. But he failed to address how his policies might have contributed to why so many Americans are no longer in the labor force or why the 1 percent are living large under his watch while so many like Mrs. DeMars can’t find work.
Perhaps most incongruous of all, he praised America’s long tradition of upward mobility and entrepreneurial spirit by highlighting two women from the bailed-out auto industry. I don’t question their credentials, but couldn’t he have picked people from the myriad companies not so inextricably linked to government?
The one moment where speech and reality merged was when President Obama praised the incredibly brave Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg, blinded in one eye and disabled from wounds suffered from a roadside bomb attack in Afghanistan during his 10th deployment. As he said, “My fellow Americans, men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy.”
If Americans remember the speech, it will be because of Cory Remsburg, who could only clap with one hand and struggled to stand. He is a man for whom combat is not a political term and who deserved the television cameras lingering on him. The rest of it, however, was an hour of forgettable Muzak designed to lift our collective mood and distract us from the troubles on everyone’s minds but not on Obama’s lips.
Marta H. Mossburg writes about national affairs, culture and Maryland, where she lives. Follow her on Twitter at @mmossburg.