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SOTU: Smoked Salmon on Wonder Bread

January 26, 2011 ·

Obama's second State of the Union address sandwiched crummy policies between slices of inspiration.

The good news for President Barack Obama is that his one joke in an otherwise dead-serious 2011 State of the Union address elicited a chuckle from the assembled lawmakers in the chamber and sent ripples of humorous asides through the blogosphere. In case you missed it, Obama made the case for a historic reorganization of government by highlighting the layers of bureaucracy regulating salmon.

"The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater," he quipped. "And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."

This prompted Michael Moore to make an actually funny joke via Twitter, "Soon a fresh water salmon will sit next to a salt water salmon in the spirit of civility." It provided a welcome break from wondering why Vice President Joe Biden couldn't stop frowning and, as at least one tweeter surmised, whether House Speaker John Boehner’s seat behind the president had a built-in tanning device.

This may end up as Obama's "smoked salmon" speech, just as we remember President George W. Bush's 2006 State of the Union address as his switchgrass moment.

(In case you forgot, that was when he declared, "We will also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips and stalks or switchgrass." Millions of Americans spontaneously shouted "switchgrass!?" at no one in particular, then laughed at Bush.)

To be sure, eloquent moments abounded in Obama's second SOTU address, such as this one:

"We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled."

Bad Policy Menu

But like serving smoked salmon on Wonder Bread, the president's State of the Union address sandwiched inspirational comments with crummy foreign, domestic, and energy policies. Here's a summary of what was on the menu, according to my Institute for Policy Studies colleagues.

Obama's remarks about the nation's entrenched wars were strikingly unrealistic. "This year, our civilians will forge a lasting partnership with the Iraqi people, while we finish the job of bringing our troops out of Iraq," he proclaimed. "America’s commitment has been kept; the Iraq War is coming to an end."

IPS fellow Phyllis Bennis countered in her real-time analysis for the PBS NewsHour's website that the Iraq War isn't wrapping up, the Afghanistan War is failing, and we can't afford either one. If we are ever going to find 15 million jobs, we need to end the wars and cut military spending.

Then there was the five-year freeze he proposed on the funding of discretionary domestic programs. It would choke off vital assistance to a shrinking middle class and growing numbers of poor and low-income families, IPS fellow Karen Dolan warned.

The sound of the president's silence on climate change and the BP oil disaster was deafening, as IPS fellow and Earthbeat Radio host Daphne Wysham explained. His call for boosting "clean energy" rang hollow because, as Wysham says, he was using the term as "code for 'clean coal' (an oxymoron if there ever was one), nuclear power, and natural gas."

Given the administration's overwhelmingly corporate-friendly tilt, she finds it impossible to get optimistic about Obama actually ending subsidies for oil companies."As long as the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling stands, allowing unlimited campaign contributions from corporations, including large oil companies, it's unlikely that Congress will embrace this proposal," she said.

Catering to Big Business

Obama's pledge to slash the corporate income tax was mistaken, argued Chuck Collins, director of the Institute's Program on Inequality and the Common Good. "It is true that statutorily, the U.S. has a high 35 percent corporate income tax rate. But the effective rate — the percentage of income actually paid in taxes — is considerably lower than in most industrial countries," he said.

Obama also missed an opportunity to get serious about the nation's chronic prison problem (too many Americans are in the slammer) and absurd drug laws. "The budgetary and political stars are finally aligned for serious criminal justice reform," wrote IPS fellow Sanho Tree. "Just yesterday, a group of former world leaders and other dignitaries came out against the drug war. With this much political cover, he would be practically impervious to jabs from the right."

Finally, as linguist George Lakoff predicted, Obama used "business language to indicate that he is pro-business" in this speech, emphasizing "the need for 'competitiveness' as if America were a corporation," and calling for "investments" in education, research, infrastructure, and "clean energy." As he has done for years, Lakoff sounded the alarm about this practice, which undermines even the better aspects of Obama's speeches.

"Economic success lies in human well-being, not in stock prices, or corporate and bank profits," he explains. "These are truths. We need to use language that expresses those truths." Read more about this on Common Dreams in Lakoff's commentary The 'New Centrism' and Its Discontents.