Obama's last, thwarted state of the union address

by Michael Sean Winters

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President Obama’s State of the Union address did not dwell on the political issues of the moment. He largely stayed away from the standard format for such speeches: There was no laundry list of concerns he was asking the Congress to move on. This was a vision speech, and I am not much of a fan of vision speeches, especially from this president when the vision is always a bit myopic and the prescriptions a little too cloying.

The President organized his remarks by posing four questions to the American people and their assembled representatives. First, how do we guarantee all Americans a fair shot at opportunity in this land of opportunity? Second, what policies can we enact to make sure that technology works for us, and does not control us? Third, how do we keep the world safe without becoming the world’s policeman? Finally, the president asked how our political life can better elicit what is best in us rather than what is worst in us? They are none of them bad questions.

Unfortunately, the president’s answers to these questions were uneven at best. Through the speech, he seemed aloof from the realities he was describing. Take the first question about creating widespread opportunity and giving everyone a fair shot. I am reasonably certain he has read Robert Putnam’s book “Our Kids,” which highlights the need to create on-ramps for those on the margins of society. The president mentioned making two years of community college free for everyone, which is a great proposal, but that was about it. And, he demonstrated little empathy for the anxieties many, perhaps most, Americans feel about their own economic prospects. He listed his administration’s achievements, and compared the U.S. economy favorably with the economies of other nations, and he was not wrong about any of that. But, the data is small comfort to families that are still struggling.

Briefly, Obama channeled Bernie Sanders. “Food stamp recipients didn’t create the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did,” the president said. “Immigrants aren’t the reason wages haven’t gone up enough; those decisions are made in the boardrooms that too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns.  It’s sure not the average family watching tonight that avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts.” But, apart from a promise to “lift up” those companies that treat their workers well, he did not have much to say about confronting the concentrated power of America’s economic elite. Indeed, scan that first sentence which contrasts people who receive food stamps with behavior, not persons, on Wall Street. He said he believed there were outdated regulations that needed to be repealed, but declined to mention* any of them. And, his swipe at members of Congress for being the only people who will work at the same place for 30 years was not appreciated by the assembly.

On the second question about the role of technology, Obama was at his best. Indeed the best lines of the night were: “Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there.  We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget.  We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon.” His pitch on climate change was aimed squarely at the center of the electorate, not emphasizing the moral responsibility we have to protect the planet, but the potential for the U.S. to become a leader in manufacturing and selling green technology.

When the President turned to foreign affairs, usually a strong suit for any president when addressing Congress, the speech really took a nose dive. Yes, Americans need a reality check about what terrorists can and cannot accomplish, about the relative strength of our military, and about the limits on America’s influence. He was right to call the turmoil in the Mideast a struggle that will take a generation to sort out. But, when Obama said the fight against terrorism was “not World War III” he needed to acknowledge that it may not be such for us, but it sure as hell seems like it to the people on the ground. He warned against American involvement and its potential to create a quagmire, citing the examples of Vietnam and Iraq as lessons we should have learned. But, Syria is a quagmire, too, and part of the reason is our lack of involvement. And, when he lumped Ukraine and Syria together - “Even as their economy contracts, Russia is pouring resources to prop up Ukraine and Syria – states they see slipping away from their orbit.” - I assumed he had read the teleprompter incorrectly, but when I checked his words against the text, he said what was written. I have no idea what he meant but what he said makes no sense.

Obama’s answers to the last question about the state of our political life was the most strange. In the notes I took while watching the speech, I see I wrote and underlined “this is gibberish.” Re-reading the text this morning, I do not see a need to change that assessment. The President said, “Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us.” That last point about listening only to those who agree with us is the way many in Washington, Democrats and Republicans, characterize the Obama White House: unwilling to listen, convinced it has the answers, arrogant, didactic (like the speech itself). He was right to point to the profound disagreements that existed among the Founders, but failed to draw any useful lessons from that history.

Consider this paragraph:

So, my fellow Americans, whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, our collective future depends on your willingness to uphold your obligations as a citizen.  To vote.  To speak out.  To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us.  To stay active in our public life so it reflects the goodness and decency and optimism that I see in the American people every single day. 

I do not see any “how” there. The president could have said, “Look, if you think Washington is broken, get involved in the political life of your city or town. I welcome solutions at the local level which could restore greater balance to our political system.” That would be an interesting thing to say, especially from a Democrat. I am glad he asked us to care for the weak and the vulnerable. Of course, need I point out that the Little Sister of the Poor do that every day, and they were sitting in the chamber, but the President did not point that out. Ditto about his invoking Dr. King’s words on “unconditional love.” To be clear, I regretted the presence of the Little Sisters and shame on whoever asked them to come and become pawns in a political game. I also do not share the argument the lawyers for the Little Sisters are making in the court. But, it was strange to hear the president quoting Pope Francis, calling for voices of unconditional love, and urging us to care for the vulnerable while being sued by people in the chamber who exemplify in their lives the things he was asking us all to undertake.

Last night’s speech had the flavor of a speech delivered during Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008, or his keynote at the 2004 Democratic convention, when he expressed the hope that he could unite a divided nation. That was a vain hope then in both senses of the word: The divisions in the country were, and are, real and Obama was no Superman, able to leap those divisions in a single bound. Indeed, it is the sad legacy of President Obama that he was a wonderful campaigner but was not a very good politician. He raised hopes but then was unable to deliver on them. Yes, the Republicans refused to give him a break, sometimes not even showing the man a decent respect. But, he should not be surprised, having raised those false hopes, that he is leaving the country more cynical than he found it. The word that haunted his last State of the Union speech was “thwarted” and much of the thwarting of the past seven years came from within, not without.

*An earlier version of this column included a misspelling.  

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