Watching President Obama deliver Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, I was bored. The 12.9 million people plugged into the Bing Pulse live online poll were also unimpressed — not once did Republicans or independents rise above the median line to show a positive rating for anything the President said, and even Democrats spent most of the speech in negative, unenthused territory. Even Obama himself looked bored. And he should have been — as liberal pundit Kirsten Powers wrote in USA Today, the speech “was a melee of cringe-inducing lines ripped straight from a sit-in.”
That’s an interesting comment — because it acknowledges that speeches are performances, and that oratory is a form of acting. Speeches must be well-written, with fresh and original lines. And those lines must be well-delivered, with sincerity and feeling. A good actor can elevate bad lines. And good lines can sometimes redeem a flat delivery. But when the part and the player are both out to lunch, everything falls apart. As Powers put it, Obama’s speech “was so hackish, so devoid of any theme or purpose, that it makes one wonder whether part of Obama just wants to see how bad he can be before … the news media can see it.”
It also makes one wonder how the speech — and its delivery — would have differed if Aaron Sorkin could have written it. When Sorkin’s The West Wing began airing in 1999, the Clinton White House was still reeling from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The President’s dalliance with a West Wing intern made headlines in 1998, dominated the news cycle for months, and eventually led to impeachment for perjury and obstruction of justice. Clinton was acquitted in February of 1999 — but the affair had decisively tainted the presidency. The West Wing premiered a short seven months later. And from the first episode, it was acutely clear that part of Sorkin’s aim was to redeem the concept of a Democratic White House — if not for the Clinton presidency, then for subsequent administrations.
Jeb Bartlett, Sorkin’s edition of the ideal Democratic president, is, like Clinton, a brilliant intellectual of liberal bent. Unlike Clinton, he’s also a faithful family man whose darkest secrets are his short temper and a proclivity to eat red meat when his wife isn’t looking. He’s a spontaneous speechifier, one who combines natural eloquence with a fire-and-brimstone morality that cleverly aligns the president with the Old Testament God. One example: When his personal physician’s plane is shot down by the Syrians, Bartlett declares, “I’m going to blow them off the face of the earth with the fury of God’s own thunder.”
Jeb Bartlett is passionate about his purpose — and his staff are passionate about helping ensure that his purpose is fulfilled, even if it means they never get to sleep, eat, or have an independent thought. He’s a compelling character in his own right — and a powerful antidote to the realities of the scandal-ridden, morally suspect Clinton White House, where honesty seemed to get lost in the folds of dirty dresses and debates about how far one could stretch the meaning of “to be.”
Sorkin was tidying things up — offering Americans a Democratic dream team that could distract them from inconvenient truths, inspire them anew with the party platform, and crucially, prepare them to idolize the next viable Democratic candidate to come along. It didn’t work with Al Gore or John Kerry. But these things take time.
The West Wing won 27 Emmys and aired until 2006. At that point, Bush the Younger was half-way through his second term and Americans — even conservative-leaning Americans — were ready for a change. Cue Barack Obama — young, suave, fresh, and, like Bartlett, a great natural speechifier. His address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention set the party and the country on fire. He had the charisma of Bartlett, only in a new, multicultural way. He had scholarly gravitas — like Bartlett, he’d started off as a professor. He could do folksy, too, just like Bartlett. And, like Bartlett, he was of Nobel caliber — if the television character entered office with a Nobel under his belt, Obama nabbed his early in his first term.
You could argue that The West Wing played a role in electing Obama. It was there, in the back of people’s minds, as a script that it would be wonderful to enact in real life. Certainly the American people were primed for a shift away from Bush-era policy and toward a Bartlett-like liberalism — decent, thoughtful, and ethical, with mainstream appeal; moral and yet open-minded on social issues; and economically smart on fiscal matters (Bartlett’s Nobel, it bears repeating, was for economics). Obama won because he had that sort of appeal; it wasn’t just the left that loved him, but a center that saw in him someone who would reach across the aisle to find pragmatic solutions to problems that were threatening to destroy the economy.
But the problem with fantasies is that they aren’t real. By definition, Barack Obama is not, and cannot be, the dreams that others project onto him. He is not Jeb Bartlett — nor is he Matt Santos, the young minority candidate who is tagged as Bartlett’s successor in The West Wing’s finale. As Tuesday’s speech showed, Obama’s charisma and his power of oratory have abandoned him — or, to look at it another way, perhaps we have begun to abandon the fantasy that he is a charismatic, powerful orator and a natural, inspiring leader.
After all, look at what’s followed in The West Wing’s wake. There is Boss, Kelsey Grammer’s award-winning but short-lived show about a Chicago mayor who hides his dementia so that he can stay in office. There is Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Veep, the acclaimed HBO sitcom whose humor turns on the inconsequential absurdity of the office of the vice president. And, most recently, there is Netflix’ House of Cards, which features Kevin Spacey in the role of a Machiavellian Congressman exposing — and using — the corruption and stupidity that dominate daily life inside the beltway.
Sorkin’s series asked us to invest in the belief that good work is done in Washington, and that the White House is the noblest branch of an exceptionally noble governmental structure. Only a few years have passed since the series ended — but the show’s descendants mark a huge shift in attitude toward politics in general and Washington in particular. Where The West Wing was earnest and sincere, these shows are cynical and jaded; where The West Wing passionately argued that government could be great, these shows take it for granted that government is an ugly, self-serving business indeed. They earn their ratings and win their awards by acting like political peepshows — revealing to everyday people the horror, and the sick humor, of the system they pay dearly to be exploited by.
Perhaps, then, it’s not that President Obama has lost his spark. Perhaps our commander in chief is just what he’s always been — a hologram of the present moment, a figment of whatever popular culture tells us we should make him out to be. Perhaps we are the ones who have changed. If we are bored and unimpressed by the president’s speech, it might be, at least in part, because we’ve stopped believing Sorkin’s fairy tale and have begun believing another sort of story entirely.