Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Obama, Rubio speeches: Highs and lows

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst
February 14, 2013 -- Updated 1741 GMT (0141 HKT)
President Barack Obama is greeted before delivering his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, February 12. President Barack Obama is greeted before delivering his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, February 12.
HIDE CAPTION
State of the Union
State of the Union
State of the Union
State of the Union
State of the Union
State of the Union
State of the Union
State of the Union
State of the Union
State of the Union
State of the Union
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Gergen: Significant moment of diversity in President Obama, Sen. Rubio
  • Gergen: Best of Obama was a call for gun control; the worst was failure to address deficit
  • Neither one specified how his party would fund or handle certain issues, he says
  • Gergen: Both ignored some deeper, underlying problems such as out-of-wedlock births

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Neither the State of the Union address by President Barack Obama nor the response by Sen. Marco Rubio will ever find a place in the anthology of best American speeches, but together they were important entries in the political dialogue. Before they fade into memory, perhaps a few words are in order about the highs and lows of the evening -- at least from this vantage point:

The most savored thought: Who could have imagined a decade ago hearing an African-American deliver the State of the Union and a Latino offering the opposition's response? No other advanced country in the world has so fully embraced diversity.

Yes, it is true that in 2009 an Indian-American gave the response, but still the country has needed to have more Latinos advance into political leadership. To have Obama and Rubio speak back-to-back was special.

David Gergen
David Gergen

The emotional highlight: After a rather pedestrian opening, the president's speech soared at the end as he called out the victims of gun violence and demanded a vote in their honor. It's hard to remember oratory that has worked so effectively in a State of the Union.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Cody Keenan, please join the president in taking a bow. Keenan is the 32-year old who just became chief speechwriter at the White House. He has been known there in the past as the deputy who had the account for eulogies and commencements -- and in those closing moments, we saw that the president chose the right person to succeed the highly respected Jon Favreau. And yes, the victims deserve a vote!

The biggest disappointment: For the president, this speech was probably his last opportunity to break open the impasse over federal deficits. Only a game-changing proposal had any chance of success -- putting a bold offer on the table of significant changes in Medicare and Social Security along with a tax overhaul in exchange for the GOP dropping the sequester and accepting near-term investments in infrastructure and the like.

But the president never stepped up. Indeed, without admitting it, he is in retreat from the original Simpson-Bowles proposal to lower the national debt as a percentage of gross domestic product. That is a huge setback for the country.

The most pleasant surprise: In days leading up to the address, White House aides had been dropping broad hints to the press that a newly combative Obama would once again stick it to Republicans. Not an olive branch, reported Politico, but a cattle prod. Instead, Obama wisely chose to use tempered, constructive language in addressing the other side. That didn't change the atmosphere much in Washington -- but give the president credit. He didn't make it worse either. It would be good to hear the Republicans act in the same spirit.

Emotional plea on guns may lead to vote
Watch Obama's State of the Union speech
GOP responds to the State of the Union

The best idea: Among the many proposals Obama set forth, his argument that America should provide quality preschool for every child deserves special attention. Research shows that on average, a low-income child enters kindergarten with a much smaller vocabulary than a high-income child and will likely never make up the gap. Yet one wondered as the president spoke: Whatever happened to the promise that every child would also have quality K-12?

The worst idea: It is one thing for the federal government to intervene in early public education because the system is so deeply in need of reform. But it is another thing entirely to follow the president's notion that the federal government should begin regulating colleges and universities to ensure they are providing good education at affordable prices. Yes, schools must keep tighter control over tuition increases and provide more online courses at cheaper prices, but the last thing we need is for Washington to inject itself deeply into higher education. America has the best colleges and universities in the world; they are a crown jewel. If they ain't broke, Washington shouldn't try to fix them.

What was left out: Obama insisted that his many spending proposals wouldn't add a dime to the deficits. That was risible. Of course, they will cost lots of money -- he just forgot to tell us the price tags and how he would pay for them.

Rubio wasn't much better: He said where Republicans wanted to go on issues, but he rarely told us how they would get there. For example, how exactly would they now overhaul Medicare? And both men ducked conversations about some of our deeper, underlying problems.

Case in point: The United States is undergoing a dramatic shift in childbearing so that half the children born to mothers under 30 are born out of wedlock. We know as well that a child born out of wedlock is more likely to experience poverty and lack an adequate education. We don't need our political leaders to chastise single mothers -- they bear some of the toughest burdens in society -- but we do need our leaders to promote the values of marriage and to demand more responsible fatherhood. The president at least hinted at the problem, but neither man really wrestled with it.

State of the Union addresses might have become boring for many, but they are important. Since Woodrow Wilson, they have been an annual ritual, giving the nation's most powerful elected leader an opportunity to tell Congress and the country what faces us and what we must do as a people. This year's address and its response seemed middling -- some great moments, some clunkers. Sadly, they didn't seem to move us forward. The State of the Union that does that is the one that will make the anthologies.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1215 GMT (2015 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT