Daft Prez

Was Obama's State of the Union his second farewell address?

As a special service to journalists, commentators, and water-cooler pundits around America, I offer five different ways to frame your comments and thinking about President Barack Obama's State of the Union address -- in terms that will lend the speech some of the zest and creativity it otherwise lacked.

1. Daft Prez

Face it, if the president were a type of music, he'd be techno. And if there were a model for what we saw last night, it might be Daft Punk, the French duo who cleaned up at the Grammys this year for their hit song and album "Get Lucky." The lyrics to the chorus of that song, "We've come too far to give up who we are" also happened to be the theme of Barack Obama's address. In it, he reiterated most of the core policies and plans of his presidency, rehashed some old achievements and promises, and then essentially said, having come this far, if Congress wouldn't let him be, he'd find a way to remain true to himself even if it meant acting alone, via executive order.

Of course, the next line of the song is "So let's raise the bar and our cups to the stars" which, while it suggests higher goals, actually just leads to the refrain that in order to reach those goals, we're going to have to "get lucky." Admittedly, in the song, this means one thing; for America and Obama, getting lucky means something else ... it means that the country's growth is going to depend on the litany of folks outside Washington getting it done, because the government isn't going to be able to do that much. Fortunately, the rest of the country is doing better than its leaders in Washington, and that's why the fact that this State of the Union was pretty formulaic and well, a bit robotic, probably won't matter for most people. Because when Washington checks out, America keeps going and as a consequence, ensures that the State of the Union is well ahead of the state of affairs in the capital.

2. You're a Good President, Charlie Brown

For all his gifts as a speaker, and those were readily apparent last night as the president delivered his hour-long remarks, there was also a certain forlorn quality to Obama's delivery last night. Gone was the audacity of hope. Gone were the grand goals for America. Gone were the assertions that this was a man who could change Washington. This was a president who was resigned to trying to advance his agenda in a dysfunctional Washington. Even his most upbeat statements about the nature of America's economic recovery or the advancement of his international agenda, came with caveats. Yes, we're recovering, he said, but it's really only benefitting the rich and big companies. Yes, we're getting out of Afghanistan, we got out of Iraq, and have pushed back against the old al Qaeda leadership, but the prognosis for the countries we are leaving is grim and al Qaeda is spreading in a new form. But this Charlie Brown president would not have Congress keep pulling the football away every time he tries to kick it. Instead, keeping true to the Charlie Brownian motto, "I love mankind, it's people I can't stand," he said that he would find a way to go it alone, offering up a few areas where he could take executive action that might make a dent, albeit a very modest one, on America's great domestic challenges like slow job creation and burgeoning inequality. 

3. The Drone Presidency

In the midst of his address, buried among the folksy stories and show and tell with the human props populating the First Lady's box (a now standard and cheaply manipulative fare of State of the Union speeches), the president employed a technique worth noting. He argued that he was taking a stand against the use of drones worldwide that has produced such harsh backlash and was reining them in. Of course, he didn't mention that he was actually the guy who dramatically expanded the programs using unmanned aircrafts in the first place. He also took a stand suggesting he wanted to reform the surveillance programs that grew to their present, out of control levels under his leadership. He also called for progress on immigration reform that he essentially ignored throughout his first term (actually overseeing deportations at twice the rate of his predecessor). He also sought to gain credit for calling for Guantanamo Bay to be shut down ... even though doing so was a campaign promise that he has failed to follow through on for five years. In short, some of the key elements of this speech involved the president taking a tough stand against himself -- a bit like launching a drone that is programmed to target its own tail. 

4. Barack Obama's Second Farewell Address

I was recently told by a diplomat friend from elsewhere in our hemisphere that one Latin American head of state posed the theory that Barack Obama's first inaugural address was really his farewell address. In this widely respected leader's view, that was because it was at the moment of that address that he achieved what would inevitably be his biggest accomplishment -- becoming the first African American U.S. president. This other head of state, a man sympathetic to many of Obama's goals, felt it was an accomplishment so big that it would be impossible to top; inevitably, he had already achieved the thing for which history would best remember him.

While neat and not altogether uncommon, the assessment is unfair. During his first few years in office, Obama has accomplished a great deal: from helping to oversee the economic recovery of the United States to ending two misguided American wars to producing substantial health care and financial services reforms. But even if you buy into this Latin statesman's view of Obama's first inaugural, you couldn't help but see in the State of the Union elements of what might then be viewed as a second farewell address.

The speech was that of a man with a limited agenda, with limited hopes of getting much done, hemmed in his job by the most obstructionist Congress in history, buffeted by a world he does not feel he can very well control, finding a glide path for his presidency that would get him safely and with as little turbulence as possible to his ultimate historical destination. As striking as the speech was for the absence of big ideas, it was more striking for its absence of great energy or ambitions. It was clear the president had hoped for more. It was clear that he knows more needs to be done. It was even clear he had some strong ideas about how to do it. But with every goal in the speech there was also an undercurrent of a man acutely aware of the limitations of his office, of the system in which he works and of his consequent inability to do much of what he had once hoped and promised to do. If not exactly a farewell address, it was certainly one suffused with resignation.

5. My 600-lb. Life

If you wanted to see someone really grappling with big problems on Tuesday night as the president spoke, you could have switched channels and watched an episode of "My 600-Lb. Life" -- TLC's reality show that aired opposite the State of the Union. Apparently, most Americans made a similar viewing choice. The ratings for the president's address, despite being shown on every major network and news channel (over 16 channels in all), were low and likely continued the downward slide experienced over the past five years in SOTU viewership. In 2009, his first such speech garnered 52 million such viewers, according to Nielsen, the rating's service, in 2013, the number was down to 33 million. 

If last night held true to form, that means that nine out of 10 Americans were doing something else while the president was talking (which, if you picked up the theme from the opening of the president's remarks, may not be a bad thing). Because in that effective and also telling opening, essentially Barack Obama sent the message that State of the Union is strong despite Washington rather than because of it, driven by Americans going about the business of their lives rather than the women and men who gathered last night to go through yet another largely meaningless ritual on Capitol Hill.

Photoillustration by FP/Photos via Getty Images


The State of the Union, By Google Autocomplete

A snapshot of the nation’s anxious, online soul.

No one expects the State of the Union address to offer any big surprises. It's not supposed to be clever or elegant, or full of great laugh lines. It's not even supposed to be interesting. Mostly, it's supposed to be reassuring: it's the president's primary annual opportunity to answer our questions, allay our anxieties, and soothe our national soul.

So what were Americans wondering about, in the hours preceding the president's speech?

No need to refer to polls or focus groups: Who needs CNN pollsters when we have Google Autocomplete? (For those unfamiliar: When you start typing something into Google's search box, Autocomplete is that dropdown that tries to save you a few vital milliseconds by filling in the search terms it predicts you'll want to use next. It does this by instantly combing through millions of other recent user searches that begin with the same letters or words you just typed, to see what words all the other Googlers most frequently add.)

NSA, eat your heart out! You can keep tabs on our phone and email metadata all you want, but only Google sees into our national soul.

As a pre-SOTU experiment, I decided to try typing the first words of various plausible SOTU-related Google searches, specially tailored for the foreign policy-minded. Below (in italics) are some of the open-ended search strings I entered, followed by the AutoComplete results, in the order given by Google.* [Note: some technical details and disclaimers are at the end of this column.] From the trivial to the profound, here's what Google says our inquiring minds really wanted to know on the eve of the big speech:

Is President Obama
a mason?
being impeached?
left handed?
exempt from obama care?
a socialist?
a good president?
a liar?
a lawyer? 

Is the Democratic party...
an interest group?
in trouble? 

Is the Republican party...

Why does America...
use Fahrenheit?
hate Cuba?
celebrate Halloween?
borrow money?
police the world?
go to war?
support Israel?
hate Iran?

Why is America...
in debt?
so fat?
called America?
so great?
so violent?
so powerful?
so stupid?

Why can't America...
make more money?
print more money?
be Sweden?
get out of debt?
have universal health care?
be more like Europe?
beat the Taliban?
ban guns?

Will the United States...
fall like Rome?
ever be invaded?
ever break up?
survive until 2025?
last forever?
have a revolution?
have a purge?
be debt free?

Will the economy...
ever get better?
ever improve?
really collapse?

Will the middle class...
ever recover?
be saved?
come back?

Will the U.S...
Go to war with China?
Go to war?
Go into a depression?

Is the Iraq war...
really over?
a declared war?
still going on?

Is Iraq...
in Asia?
in Africa?
a country?
a democracy?
a failed state?
in the Middle East?
in Europe?

Is the war in Afghanistan...
still going on?
a just war?
ever going to end?

Is Afghanistan...
in the Middle East?
a country?
in Central Asia?
in South Asia?
a third world country?
in Africa?
a desert?

Will China...
own America?
surpass the U.S.?
Attack Japan?

Will Russia...
join the EU?
become a superpower?
invade America?
invade Ukraine?

Will Europe...
become Islamic?
become Muslim?
burn in hell?

Is al Qaeda...
still a threat?
in Syria?
in Iraq?
a gang?
an NGO?
a cult?

Are drone strikes...
war crimes?

Judging from Google AutoComplete, the nation needs a lot of reassurance this year (and a good world atlas). We're dubious about our leaders and uneasy about our future, both domestically and internationally. We're tired of war and worried about imperial overreach and decline. We're scared, and we're not convinced that things will get better any time soon.

So, did President Obama's State of the Union speech reassure anyone? We'll see. (Feel free to check Autocomplete today and let me know in the comments.) But regardless of whether he's won anyone over, the final words in the president's speech suggest that Obama, like Autocomplete, can sense the nation's malaise. "America has never come easy," he reminded us:

"Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged.... The America we want for our kids -- a rising America where honest work is plentiful and communities are strong; where prosperity is widely shared and opportunity for all lets us go as far as our dreams and toil will take us -- none of it is easy.... [Yet] I know it's within our reach. Believe it."

But here in America, we never take anything on faith, and we never stop searching for answers. The State of the Union speech may be over, but you can bet we'll keep on asking Google the big questions, and Google will keep on showing us our reflection in the mirror.

Want to know the true State of the Union? Type "why" into Google's search box, wait a fraction of a millisecond, and you'll get some version of this poignant found poem:

The State of the Union, 2014:**

Why is the sky blue?
Why do cats purr, and --
Why do we yawn?***

Oh, why did I get married!
And why do we dream?
Why am I so tired?

Why is the government shut down?
Why do men cheat?

Why am I always tired?

*Some notes and disclaimers:

1) No, I don't know what algorithm Google uses to generate Autocomplete results.
2) Before entering these search terms, I logged out of all my Google accounts and disabled location services, so Google wouldn't tailor the results based on my own previous searches or my precise geographical location. That said, Google has numerous country-specific and language-specific search sites (e.g., you can use google.co.uk to prioritize British search results, or you can "recherche Google" at google.fr). I used Google.com, but I don't know whether Autocomplete still prioritizes searches made within the United States or aggregates all Google.com English-language searches.
3) When Autocomplete offered several virtually identical suggestions (e.g., multiple forms or spellings of the same word), I listed these as one result.
4) These results are just a snapshot: Google won't specify the time period relied on by Autocomplete. (Does it only suggest the queries most frequently made within the last hour? Day? Month?
5) As more users search, Autocomplete results can and will change. YMMV.
6) Google is by far the most popular search engine in the United States, with an estimated two-thirds of the U.S. "search market"; Bing and Yahoo lag far behind. However, the demographics of Google differ somewhat from those of Bing and Yahoo, so those sites may get different "typical" search strings.

** This poem was "found" via Google Autocomplete at approximately 11p.m. on Jan. 28, 2014.

*** After a speech lasting more than an hour, who wouldn't yawn?