The State of the Union revealed little new about the state of the nation, but much about the Obama presidency. We already knew that the economy was hobbled, that the jihadists remain on the prowl, and that we face implacable foes, the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, and a world less impressed with Obama than he imagined. We were not so certain, however, what Obama wanted to do about all that until Wednesday night. Perhaps he had discovered his inner Bill Clinton. Maybe he would declare ObamaCare and the era of hubris-driven big government to be over. Or maybe he would roll the dice and continue his increasingly solitary effort to drive his party over the proverbial political cliff.
To the abject amazement of many conservatives, Obama refused to turn back and delivered an address not so different from his February 2009 speech, in which he laid out the most ambitious liberal platform in many decades. He nevertheless managed to upset liberals, who noticed how low on the priority list was health-care reform and how serious he seemed in conceding that a spending freeze (however limited in scope) was required.
Now, the favorite parlor game in Washington is to guess whether he means to drive his party over the brink. Matt Continetti writes, “It takes time for an administration to change course; maybe Obama will drop his big government agenda and move to the center over the coming year. He doesn’t, however, seem to want to. So Republicans have every reason to be cheerful. Obama persists in laying the foundation for a house nobody wants to buy.” That sentiment — the nagging suspicion that Obama can’t really mean what he says — is not limited to the Right. Democrats who were assured that Obama was the smartest, the savviest, and the most bare-knuckled pol of them all are looking about, wondering if there is not some master plan for extracting them from the downward spiral they now find themselves in.
This is the perpetual plight of hopeful Obama-philes — the desire to believe he is smarter, more creative, and more astute than he reveals himself to be in action and in rhetoric. Oh, he’s got the Olympics in the bag or he wouldn’t go to Copenhagen. Don’t be silly — he’s got a game plan for ObamaCare. Honestly, there is some backstory to explain the Middle East blunders. These and more are the endless justifications that swirl around a president who seems never to live up to the expectations of his most fervent fans.
There have been some impressive second acts in politics. Bill Clinton’s post-1994 presidency was one. Richard Nixon’s return to politics and to the White House in 1968 was another. It’s not impossible. But so far Obama has provided little evidence that he possess the intellectual resourcefulness and the political dexterity to shift gears and rescue his presidency or his party. Obama has a brief window before the midterm elections to restore if not the excitement then at least the impression of minimal competence. If he does not, his congressional allies will continue to scatter, staking out their own positions on key issues and seeking more distance from a president sinking under the weight of misplaced expectations. And those who keep rooting against all evidence for the exceptional president to reveal himself may discover that they have been deceived by pretty packaging and their own wishful thinking.
In surveying the current state of the union, we see that we may well be on the road to economic recovery (albeit with anemic job growth). Our superb military provides reason for optimism that we will achieve victories in Iraq and Afghanistan. The state of the Obama presidency is another story. It is far from certain that he will recover his bearings or remotely meet the expectations of his supporters.