By Ruth Conniff on January 26, 2011

Like his speech after the shootings in Tucson, Obama's State of the Union Address struck a note of mature, calming leadership. But it was not nearly as good.

First and foremost, the President squandered the opportunity to call for sane gun control policies--renewing the Brady Bill, or at least cutting down on the power of the automatic weapons and the number of rounds a nut like Jared Loughner can fire into a crowd.

Contrast that with Bill Clinton's speech to a hostile Congress defending the Brady Bill in his 1995 State of the Union.

Obama's gestures toward a more peaceful, cooperative nation, where we don't just "sit together tonight" but "work together tomorrow" struck the right chord.

He got off some good quips and took the high road--especially when he plugged the DREAM Act and stood up for children of undocumented workers, and when he spoke out boldly for gay troops. He rushed right from the shining moment where he attacked anti-gay bigotry, however, to a call for ROTC to return to American campuses.

Good job opportunity for grads in the recession: gay military recruiter.

On the economy, Obama hit on the theme of competitiveness relentlessly. He barely mentioned the unemployed. But he did also plug investing in infrastructure, expanding access to health care. He did a nice job yanking the Republicans' chain on health care, inviting them to meet and talk about all their great ideas (preferably live, on TV, while they glower and grope around fruitlessly).

The competitiveness theme extended to education and "Race To The Top"--where sadly competitiveness means some kids win and some kids lose out in the American educational system. At least with "No Child Left Behind" the Bush Administration presented the same policies under the a phony title that made it sound like they meant to help all kids.

As the Media Consortium member Sam of GritTV pointed out on Twitter, Obama channeled Bush on Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was great when he talked about cutting out tax breaks for billionaires--and the cameras went right to Bernie Sanders--but it's a little late now.

Obama opened the door for Paul Ryan's response when he talked about the need to cut the deficit and offered a freeze on domestic spending, singling out public employees for particular pain.

And, of course, the Republicans took that anti-deficit talk and ran with it.

"Debt, debt, debt," was the theme of the official Republican response from Representative Paul Ryan Wisconsin.

And while the "flim flam man,"as Paul Krugman memorably named him, laid out his argument that cutting taxes and cutting spending will revive the economy, he probably did the Republicans some good, if only because he didn't look like either Bobby Jindal, who bombed so badly in his memorable SOTU response, or Michele Bachmann. Bachmann delivered her competing Tea Party response, complete with a powerpoint purporting to show that Obama's stimulus program actually caused the current recession, while staring off to the side of the camera.

The contrast between the Tea Partiers and Obama is the one upside to the moderate, reasonable-sounding compromise-seeking persona the President continually projects.

It is unmistakable who is the real leader of the country, trying as hard as he can to hold us together, and who is determined to drive us off a cliff.

That's on the level of rhetoric, anyway.

During the midterm elections, Obama was fond of comparing the Republicans to kids who took the family car and drove it into the ditch by squandering the surplus and creating the current economic crisis. Now, he would say in his punchline, they want the keys back.

On a policy level, Obama's penchant for compromise--on tax breaks for corporations and the rich, handouts for banks, free trade deals and deregulation and domestic spending cuts that will hamstring his own recovery--he seems ready to hand them the keys after all.

Progressives are going to have to fight like hell to snatch them back.

Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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