On Tuesday night, President Barack Obama and Gov. Paul LePage fulfilled their constitutional duties, LePage to inform the state legislature “on the condition of the state” and Obama, to “give to the Congress information on the state of the union.” Although our two executive magistrates addressed their constituents in fulfillment of the same duty, their speeches could hardly have been more different.

Obama spoke with a polish, poise and easy charisma not seen in any president at least since Reagan. By contrast, LePage lacked the grace and effortless fluency of the political professional. He spoke instead with the gruff, roughly hewn and no-nonsense tone of a self-made businessman come reluctantly to politics.

The substance of the two speeches corresponded exactly to their delivery: the president gave a polished political speech, and the governor gave a direct, candid assessment of our problems and what we need to do to meet them. President Obama’s address began, appropriately, by celebrating his administration’s successes against al-Qaida, the conclusion of the war in Iraq, and the end of Osama bin Laden’s career of terror. He praised the men and women of our armed forces for their courage, dedication, professionalism and sacrifice, praise they richly deserve.

But then he pointedly contrasted the ethos of our military with the conduct of Congress — a contrast he reiterated in his conclusion. Unlike the men and women in Congress, he observed, the people of our military are not “consumed with personal ambition” and “don’t obsess over their differences.” Rather, “they focus on the mission at hand” and “work together.” Concluding, he invited us to “imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example.” If the president had seriously been urging the Congress to accept military discipline and to fall in line behind him as their commander in chief, he would have been advocating fascism. But he was not being serious: he was, instead, scoring cheap rhetorical points, deliberately encouraging the American people in a false hope for political unity, so that he can blame his partisan opponents when that false hope inevitably proves illusory.

As a former teacher of constitutional law, President Obama must know that our Congress will never resemble the military. A military force is designed, trained and disciplined to be united in carrying out orders given to them by civilian political leaders.

The Congress is designed to represent America in all its diversity and disagreement. It was the deliberate choice of our Constitution’s authors to create a system that would not produce dramatic change unless there was broad and deep agreement on the action to be taken.

President Obama knows that we have gridlock in Washington, not because the men and women of the Congress are dangerously ambitious, or obsessed with petty differences or unfocused. He knows that we have gridlock in Washington because there is deep disagreement outside of Washington about what is to be done to meet the present crisis.

Rather than candidly engage the serious and principled differences of opinion that divide Republicans from Democrats, the president had the audacity to imply that his opponents are bad soldiers and, in the same speech, to call sanctimoniously for an end to the politics of “mutual destruction.”

By contrast, the governor set forth plainly — one might say, bluntly — the real challenges facing our state. Maine is a poor state, the poorest in New England. Energy costs are high, and the business climate only gradually becoming more favorable. Our taxes remain high, higher than in “Taxachusetts,” and our government, very expensive. Though ours is a relatively poor state, our welfare programs are among the most generous in the country. Our governor candidly set forth his proposal to address the most pressing problem the state faces, the $221 million shortfall in the budget of the Department of Health and Human Services, and he explained his reasons for advocating the cuts he sees as necessary.

Unlike the president, who caricatured those who disagree with him as bad soldiers, the governor made an argument, and in making an argument respectfully addressed the intelligence of those who — for principled reasons of their own — would choose a different path.

Unlike the president, who ended his address with the false promise an unattainable harmony, Gov. LePage found a way to conclude on a note that spoke genuinely to an issue that truly unites our political leaders, the effort to end domestic violence.

President Obama may have had the bigger audience on Tuesday, but Gov. LePage had the better night.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.


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