In an inspired move, our colleagues over at Democracy in America, The Economist's American politics blog, compared President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech to the work being done over at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they are trying to repair a Picasso painting that was ripped by a clumsy visitor. It's hard to restore broken masterpieces, just like it is hard to restore the promised glory of Obama's presidency, now that it has been tainted by the nasty work of governing. The president has been in a tight spot—the kind of place he tends to emerge from, Houdini-like, with some masterful speechifying. But this has proven much harder in office, where the nitty-gritty of policy must inevitably displace the beauty of promises. So instead of dazzling us once again with skilful oratory, he delivered a speech that has been generally derided as ho-hum: smart, pragmatic, overlong and unstirring, bogged down in numbers and wonk. Were we entitled to expect otherwise? How can a president both make decisions and rise above their messiness? Isn't this what we complained George Bush did with his insidious "War on Terror" narrative? Junot Diaz put his finger on this visceral, childish yearning for a good story in the New Yorker:
If a President is to have any success, if his policies are going to gain any kind of traction among the electorate, he first has to tell us a story... It should necessarily be a story eight years in duration, a story that no matter what our personal politics are will excite us enough to go out and reëlect the teller just so we can be there for the story’s end. But from where I sit our President has not even told a bad story; he, in my opinion, has told no story at all... It is ironic—no it’s actually tragic—that the man who proved himself to be a fantastic storyteller on the campaign trail, who vaulted into office by fashioning his life, his promise into a great story (“Dreams from My Father,” anyone?) has been unable to locate an equally engaging narrative for his presidency.
We didn't get a story last night. (Indeed, as Jonathan Chait, who called the speech "dull, cheap and successful", observed in the New Republic: "When he declared, 'health care experts who know our system best consider this approach a vast improvement over the status quo,' I wondered if his budget freeze had already claimed the entire White House speechwriting staff.") But maybe we are a little silly for needing one. Instead the president delivered an intelligent appeal to American ideals of civic duty, mixed with pleas for his colleagues in government to help him fulfil the promises Americans elected him for. Post-partisanship is clearly a pipe-dream (and the president certainly appeared chastened in this regard, observing with a chuckle the way Republicans sat on their hands throughout the speech, even when he talked about tax-cuts). But the man has work to do. Neither fickle voters in Massachusetts nor tea-party blowhards should get in the way. Given such a complicated plot (so many characters, so many villains), the president can be forgiven for not spinning such a fine yarn just yet. So, back to the Picasso at the Met. Rather than as an analogy for the president's own restoration, perhaps it works better as a metaphor for the actual state of the union: an important work, clumsily destroyed, and absurdly expensive to put back together. As Randy Kennedy writes in the New York Times, conservators claim they can fix the painting in time for a big Picasso show in April, despite the fact that masterpieces take ages to restore. She reports on a 15th-century marble statue by the Venetian sculptor Tullio Lombardo ("one of the most important High Renaissance statues in the museum’s collection") that crashed to the floor and broke into hundreds of pieces in 2002. Conservators first thought the sculpture would be back on display in two years. Seven years later, scholars and researchers are still figuring out the right glue and materials (leading to real advances in the field of marble conservation). It might take another three years. “This has taken much longer than anyone expected,” said Ian Wardropper, chairman of the Met’s department of European sculpture and decorative arts. Fixing things that are broken always takes much longer than anyone expects. But the Met, unlike the administration, has been able to block out the public and the press from observing the restoration process—they didn’t want the extra pressure and advice. As Obama could tell them, fixing something that is priceless and shattered under scrutiny is a fool's errand. ~ EMILY BOBROW Picture credit: boltron- (via Flickr)