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SOTU: Big Government, Small Footprint

Five thoughts on President Obama’s State of the Union address:

• Obama called for “smarter government” but, as many noted, he also called for a bigger government – or, more precisely, a federal government with bigger ambitions to educate, protect and defend. (More on this in a moment.) But that expansive vision did not translate to the world outside our shores. Foreign affairs, especially concerning the Middle East, wasn’t merely put in the back seat of this address — it was locked away in the trunk.

Obama didn’t mention Iran until just a few minutes before 10 pm (EST). He promised to stand by a safe and secure Israel, a promise delivered in one sentence. He never even mentioned the Palestinians. And his description of the brutal civil war going on in Syria, which threatens the stability of the entire region, was dramatically downplayed.

The president is probably right in reading the public. His pledge to pull out of Afghanistan next year drew huge applause. Clearly, America’s global footprint is going to shrink. Which is good if that makes way for a major upgrade at home…

• Honestly, I couldn’t keep track of all the new federal programs he proposed. Promoting clean energy. Building high-tech manufacturing hubs. Something about fixing bridges and reducing housing payments. Reforming high schools. And the really big deal — extending pre-school opportunities to all young Americans.

As long as there is a way to responsibly pay for these programs (and I realize that is a gigantic if) I found it refreshing to hear a president dream big, especially when his goals are not to build more weapon systems but better schools and new factories.

• One of my personal passions is voting rights – I even wrote a book a few years ago about the passage of the 26th Amendment, granting 18-year-olds the right to vote. So I was thrilled to hear that the outrageous abuses we saw in the last election were coming under scrutiny. It was a smart move to bring together top staffers from the Obama and Romney campaigns to work on this issue. My question is: What can they do?

States still control much of the features of voting in this country, which is why there were long lines in some states and not in others. So I will be interested to see what role this new federal effort will play and whether it can be successful.

• Rhetorically, the speech was a kind of hodge-podge, delivered by an obviously confident president who entered the chamber with the pull of a strong showing last November and an opposition so fractured it took two different Republicans to officially respond. I’m not sure how well the first three-quarters of the speech held together. But you could hear the Barack Obama of the campaign trail and the convention center emerge toward the end, with his trademark use of cadence and silence, focusing the hall on the pressing need for gun safety measures and allowing the cameras to linger on the brave faces of those who have been victimized by our gun-crazed society. Brilliant. And, I hope, effective.

• A final word about fashion. (Yes, fashion.) Michelle Obama obviously likes sequins. What was Ruth Bader Ginsburg wearing around her neck on the top of her robe? And I think from now on, the vice president and the speaker of the House should coordinate their ties. Joe Biden in bright purple and John Boehner in even brighter pink bring the clashing culture of Washington to a new level!

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