Obamas State of the Union Speech: Trying to Recapture the Magic

What’s in it for maritime? No mention, but encouraging references to offshore oil & gas and to doubling exports in five years.

As a former speechwriter, I take great professional interest in the pronouncements of presidents, CEOs, politicians, diplomats, economists, and luminaries in the worlds of entertainment and sports. I look for theme and content, structure, turn of phrase, and the ability to inspire and instruct. Most of all I look for tone – a quality that goes beyond the words themselves and conveys the true message of the speech.

And so I found myself listening intently to the President’s remarks last Wednesday evening as he delivered his first State of the Union address. I was not disappointed. It was a brilliant speech, beginning with a litany of the trials and tribulations facing the American people and ending with a soaring call to action. In between there were references to everything from the bank bailout and making college affordable to Afghanistan and health care and “the 8-year-old boy in Louisiana, who just sent me his allowance and asked if I would give it to the people of Haiti.”

But the speech was not perfect. It had its flaws, as all speeches do, mainly reflecting the personality of the speaker. The tone varied from whining and accusatory to soaring and inspirational. The President could not resist the temptation to blame his predecessor as well as those in Congress who would not follow his lead (“Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership.”). In a real political no-no and what amounted to a calculated attempt to embarrass the third branch of government, he took a direct shot at the Supreme Court seated before him for its decision to overturn spending limits by corporations. He disavowed any failures of his own other than perhaps a failure to communicate clearly enough, particularly on the subject of health care. To his credit, perhaps, he carefully avoided the trap of beginning his speech with the traditional “The state of the union is _________(fill in the blank)” because what adjective could he use? Recovering, weak, comatose, robust?

For those of us in the maritime business, there were a few bones to chew on. One was the statement that “We will double our exports in five years.” Wow! We will? How? By passing a “National Export Initiative that will help farmers and small businesses increase their exports, and reform(ing) export controls consistent with national security.” All right! That means more ships on the water and more business for America. Let’s see if he can pull it off.

There was also reference to “making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development.” Hear, hear. That too would be good for marine. More platforms, more workboats, more jobs. Less dependence on foreign oil. But what about the huge deposits of natural gas we have in shale formations across America? Now that we’ve figured out how to get that gas out and there’s an abundance of it, shouldn’t we be encouraging more power plants to burn it? And it’s cheap too, compared to oil. That was Aubrey McClendon’s complaint the day after the speech: The CEO of Chesapeake Energy, one of the nation’s largest natural gas producers, was incensed that there was no mention of this valuable resource.

There was the familiar reference to rebuilding our eroding infrastructure with specific reference to a new high-speed rail service to be started in Tampa. All well and good, but where are those jobs anyway, and what about our nation’s inland waterways, the much-heralded but still nascent short sea shipping initiative? Isn’t that an equally worthy investment? If you’re going to move passengers in a more environmentally friendly way and get them out of their cars and off the highways, can’t you do the same for cargo? That would be a real breakthrough. Unfortunately, no mention of short sea shipping.

Perhaps the most surprising reference of all was to clean coal: “It (creating clean energy jobs) means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal.” Wow again. I never thought I’d hear a Democratic president talk about coal of any kind – except to keep it in the ground. As MarEx readers know, America has enough coal to satisfy its energy needs for 250 years. Developing and transporting it via the inland waterway system to utilities across America – not to mention shipping it to our trading partners overseas – would be a huge boon for the maritime business.

The trouble with speeches is that most people don’t listen to them anymore. They don’t have the patience, or the stamina. Their attention span is too short. They get bored easily. That’s a shame. Speeches are a great way to convey a message, a program, a world view. They can inspire and motivate and teach and enlighten. They can soar too. Obama’s soared at the end when he invoked the American spirit of determination and optimism, the “fundamental decency” that exists at the core of the American people. It reminded me of Reagan at his finest. “Every day, Americans meet their responsibilities to their families and their employers. Time and again, they lend a hand to their neighbors and give back to their country. They take pride in their labor, and are generous in spirit. These aren't Republican values or Democratic values that they're living by; business values or labor values. They're American values.”

You could have heard a pin drop in the House chamber during the last five minutes of Obama’s speech. Perhaps he had recaptured the magic after all. - MarEx

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Jack O’Connell is the Senior Editor of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments on this editorial at harvardjo@maritime-executive.com and/or join the Maritime Executive ‘Linked In’ group by clicking HERE.