If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, what can be said of plagiarism? President Obama’s second State of the Union address contained enough recycled ideas and lines lifted from speeches of others to make historians wince. I suppose this is what one does when one not only has nothing new to say, but is required by custom and Constitution to come forth with a report of some kind by a certain time and day.
Had Obama or his writers been considerate enough to have informed listeners of where some of the president’s best lines and offered-up ideas originated, the speech might be remembered for its cutting and pasting of great and not-so-great moments of the past performance of others. After quoting Robert Kennedy early on, Obama tried to have his listeners believe that everything else he said that we might remember were his or his writers’ creations. Had the president submitted the text of his second State of the Union Address in the form of a college term paper, he would have been sent forthwith to the nearest academic dean. Once again, our public affairs are such that we have one standard for presidents and another for undergraduates. Now is as good a time as any to let Obama’s listeners in on what the late Paul Harvey would have termed “the rest of the story.” [Take the poll: Was Obama’s State of the Union speech a success?]
Early in his address, Obama said that he wanted the nation he leads to be a "light to the world." The last president who set such a mission for the nation he led, and in those exact words, was Woodrow Wilson.
Obama’s concept of the “American family” may well have had its origins in the first State of the State address New York Governor Mario Cuomo delivered in 1983. Cuomo proclaimed the state of New York as a “family.” He also talked about multiple partnerships, both public and private.
In a 1991 Washington, D.C. address sponsored by conservative groups, including the Heritage Foundation, Margaret Thatcher coined a phrase Obama made his own in his second State of the Union address. Thatcher told her American audience that "no other nation has been built upon an idea." In a slightly revised form, Obama, in his second State of the Union address, all but repeated it, using additional words.
Obama’s pointed mutterings about a second “Sputnik Moment” being upon us and his recollection of how American policymakers responded to the last one with increased expenditures on infrastructure, science, technology, and education were clearly intended to evoke the spirit of Dwight D. Eisenhower. His setting of specific deadlines and goals was vintage JFK, but for the absence of any sense of challenge to his audience, list of benefits the United States would derive from them, or any semblance of a shared adventure the American people were about to embark upon. [Read Robert Schlesinger: Obama Not the First to Use 'Sputnik Moment.']
There was a certain Back to the Future feel to the masterful tributes Obama paid those Ronald Reagan might have described as “ordinary heroes.” After all, it was Reagan who began the practice of inviting citizens who had done extraordinary things to sit beside the first lady in the House gallery as the president recited their achievements. It was also Reagan who reminded his listeners that the greatness of America emerged not from the hand of government, but through the entrepreneurial spirit of the American people. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.]
Obama received his most sustained applause when he said, "I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth." Leaving aside the faulty grammar (people change places with people, not with nations), the poaching from John F. Kennedy's immortal inaugural address was obvious enough for the most historical of Obama's listeners to notice. ("I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation.") That Obama could utter almost identical words days after paying tribute to Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of the delivery of that famous speech and not making reference to it suggests a self-absorption rare even among presidents. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
Most pointedly, the low point of Obama’s speech came when he brought back government re-organization from the ash heap of failed efforts of previous presidents who sought to save money without inflicting pain on a public that had grown accustomed to government largesse. This one, like all that talk about all those green energy jobs that lay before us, had fallen out of the presidential repertoire with retirement of Jimmy Carter. Obama might have had the decency to have Carter on hand to witness the moment. He will have another chance should he, when he delivers his budget, bring back that other Carter flop from yesteryear, “zero based budgeting.” [See a slide show of 10 worst presidents.]
Even Obama’s feigned attempt at humor had an antecedent in the remarks of a predecessor who spun better yarns than this president. Obama informed his listeners that salmon comes under the jurisdiction of one department when swimming in fresh water and under another when swimming in salt water. He rhetorically inquired what happened to the fish when “smoked.”
Somewhere in the White House library resides a published letter Franklin Roosevelt wrote to an adviser in which he complained that some bears were the property of the Interior Department, while others belonged the National Parks System. FDR, tongue in cheek, warned of a pending custody battle over cubs that emerged from illicit unions of bears crossing departmental jurisdictions. [Read A Brief History of the State of the Union Address.]
It would appear that the only president of note whose imprint was absent in Obama’s long awaited and much-anticipated speech was Obama. This was supposed to have been the moment when the nation found out whether he was at the core a Rooseveltian liberal of a Clintonian centrist. What it got was a cut and pasted version of great and not-so-great State of the Union and other addresses of the past.
Sometime last year, many suggested that Obama would have an easier time getting his message across if he was less dependent on his teleprompter. This may be the year his writers are advised to throw away their books of political quotations. Then we may finally find out what the president truly believes and what he hopes to achieve in the office he so ardently sought.
Corrected on 1/26/11: This blog post originally had an incorrect publication time.
Corrected on 1/27/11: An earlier version of this post incorrectly quoted former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s talk to conservative groups in 1991. She said that “No other nation has been built upon an idea,” not that the United States was the “first nation to have been founded on an idea.”