It should be said at the top that the constitutionally mandated State of the Union message (delivered in letter form until quite recently) does not lend itself to inspired rhetoric, soaring imagery, or pungent analogies. Indeed, reading a dictionary might seem gloriously rousing by comparison.
A great speechmaker like Obama then, is hog tied. Aside from the peroration, the president didn’t get much of a chance to stretch his rhetorical chops. It was like he went into battle with one hand tied behind his back and his effort suffered because of it.
I was more interested in how the president sees the problems he faces and what he proposed to do about them. As the speech droned on, I was struck time and time again with Obama’s curious detachment from the effects of his policies and, more importantly, the people’s perception of those policies.
It was surreal at times. Michael Gerson at WaPo felt pretty much the same way:
Obama’s problem is not primarily political — though he seems in complete denial about the political dangers he faces. (He amazingly blamed his health-care failure on “not explaining it more clearly.”) Obama’s problem is not a vice president behind his right shoulder who can’t stop his distracting, sycophantic nodding — though it was certainly annoying.
Obama has a reality problem.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated this week that unemployment will average more than 10 percent for the first half of this year, before declining at a slower pace than in past recoveries. On this economic path, Obama’s presidency will fail. Many Democrats in the House chamber tonight will lose their jobs. And the nation will enter a Carter-like period of stagnation and self-doubt.
Every element of the president’s speech tonight should be considered in this light.
I want to give the president his due here; in his heart, I really think he wants to change Washington, change government, and by doing so, change the country. That’s what he was elected to do. That is the broad mandate he possessed this time last year when he took the oath of office.
So what happened? Despite possessing the most lopsided majorities in the House and Senate in a generation, very little has been done. He has squandered most if not all of that mandate by appearing to be indecisive (Afghanistan), unable to lead effectively (health care), and by demonstrating a capability to be just as partisan as any other Washington insider.
The president has lost his mojo and his attempt to get it back last night revealed a man out of touch with the realities in the country, and unable to come to grips with ordinary people’s concerns about jobs and the economy.
Richard Grenell writing at Huffpo:
It is hard to believe a President that says “…I am not interested in re-litigating the past” after he just spent 60 minutes of his First State of the Union Address re-litigating the past and blaming Bush for his problems.
It is hard to take a President seriously when he speaks 116 words describing how he wants to get rid of nuclear weapons but only 38 words uttered on the biggest violator of those principles: Iran. It is hard to understand why Obama and his Administration have wasted this past year by not increasing the sanctions on Iran and building on the Bush Administration’s 3 UN resolutions sanctioning Iran for their continued illegal uranium enrichment.
It’s hard to take a President seriously when he says we will take the fight to al Qaeda but then brings al Qaeda to the U.S. to be tried in an American court. It’s hard to understand a President who sends the lawyers to a terrorist to tell him that he has the right to remain silent but then brags that he is tough on terrorists.
And if you thought Obama had learned a lesson from the recent Scott Brown election in Massachusetts, think again. From the moment he started his address to the Nation, Obama made it perfectly clear that all of his problems were Bush’s fault.
Let us, for the sake of argument, grant Obama and the Democrats their point that it is indeed, all Bush’s fault. The question I and most voters want answered is this; have the president’s policies made things better? Despite all the spin about “jobs saved,;” despite the nonsense about not explaining his health care plan better; despite the rhetoric about protecting America from terrorists; Barack Obama’s policies have not worked.
It’s easy to talk about “jobs saved” when there is no benchmark you can use to prove it. It’s easy to say that without acting, we would have had a depression when your only evidence is the musings of a few economists. And it’s extremely easy to talk tough about deficits when your own policies have contributed so much to them being out of control. All you have to do is ignore reality and substitute some whopping lies and a gimmicky spending “freeze” that doesn’t fool anybody and only adds to the perception that you are divorced from what real people think.
Peter Wehner’s take is a little harsh but underscores the president’s discombobulation:
If substance was the main take-away of this address, it would have been merely mediocre. But what made it downright harmful for Obama and Democrats was its tone. The speech was defensive and petulant, backward-looking and condescending, petty and graceless. He didn’t persuade people; he lectured them. What was on display last night was a man of unsurpassed self-righteousness engaged in constant self-justification. His first year in office has been, by almost every measure, a failure – and it is perceived as a failure by much of the public. Mr. Obama cannot stand this fact; it is clearly eating away at him. So he decided to use his first State of the Union to press his case. What he did was to set back his cause.
What made the speech a bit bizarre, and somewhat alarming, is how detached from reality the president is. After having spent much of his time blaming his predecessor for his own failures, he said he was “not interested in re-litigating the past.” Barack Obama lamented waging a “perpetual campaign” – even though that is what the president, David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel, Robert Gibbs and others in his employ do on a daily basis. He said, “Washington may think that saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, is just part of the game” – yet his White House has played that very game with zest and delight.
And here is the kicker:
The president criticized the “outsized influence of lobbyists in Washington” – as though he had no memory of the squalid backroom deals that were cut in order to try to secure passage of health care legislation but that helped lead to its demise. He spoke of the need to “do our work openly,” even though Obama broke his promise to allow health care negotiations to appear on C-SPAN and who worked with the House and Senate leadership behind closed doors. He called on Congress to “continue down the path of earmark reform” – even though he eagerly signed legislation that contained around 8,500 earmarks. He claimed he is ending American involvement in the Iraq war – even though the Status of Forces Agreement that will end American involvement in the Iraq war was signed by President Bush. He said the United States must “always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity” – even as he and his secretary of state have consciously downplayed our commitment to both, whether in our dealings with Iran or China or any of a number of other nations.
On and on this game went, late into the night.
Why the disconnect between rhetoric and reality? Some might say the president is so immersed in his own narcissistic, self-referential world that he actually believes that if he says something, it must be true. Those that try and make that point usually aren’t psychiatrists or mental health professionals, so while not dismissing the possibility entirely, I think we can tentatively conclude that such is not the case.
But the alternative explanation isn’t much better; that the president is a coldly calculating politician who knows that his sycophants in the press, and the millions who still believe in the Promise of Obama, can easily be taken in by such rhetorical tricks, not to mention the great bulk of the electorate who doesn’t pay close attention to what is happening in the country. For all of those, the president can talk “bi-partisanship” while confident that no one will recall, or has never heard of his brutal attacks on the opposition to his health care reform and other measures.
And what of the president’s unprecedented attack on the Supreme Court? There is an argument to be made against the Citizens United decision but this isn’t it:
Last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests –- including foreign corporations –- to spend without limit in our elections. Well I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and that’s why I’m urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong.”
Pure, unadulterated demagoguery. Former FEC Chairman Bradley Smith:
The Court held that 2 U.S.C. Section 441a, which prohibits all corporate political spending, is unconstitutional. Foreign nationals, specifically defined to include foreign corporations, are prohibiting from making “a contribution or donation of money or ather thing of value, or to make an express or implied promise to make a contribution or donation, in connection with a Federal, State or local election” under 2 U.S.C. Section 441e, which was not at issue in the case. Foreign corporations are also prohibited, under 2 U.S.C. 441e, from making any contribution or donation to any committee of any political party, and they prohibited from making any “expenditure, independent expenditure, or disbursement for an electioneering communication.”
This is either blithering ignorance of the law, or demagoguery of the worst kind.
It’s not just Smith, of course. Dozens of blog posts from right and left point out the same thing. Whoever vetted that speech either was not on the ball, or the president simply didn’t care and wanted to have his straw man villain in order to buttress his credentials as a populist fighter for the little guy.
For someone who denigrated millions of little people by criticizing them for clinging to their guns and bibles, this “New, improved Obama (now with Average Voter Appeal)” can’t be taken very seriously. But if President Obama now sees that playing the class warrior card as his only option, he will continue to browbeat bankers, insurance companies, and other stock characters in the Karl Marx collection of one act plays. Eventually, he will run out of people to blame - perhaps even George Bush whose policies he continues to follow and promote - and then where will he be?
Our country is in a tough spot. Judging by what we heard last night, there is little hope that policies which have proven to be ineffective will be changed and leadership which has been shown to be non-existent will be found.
Earth to Obama…where are you?