Commentary Magazine


A Diminished Obama Strikes a Tepid Tone

President Obama launched his re-election campaign tonight with a State of the Union speech that attempted to conjure up the spirit of an earlier era of national unity even as he sought to focus national resentment on wealthy Americans and his political opponents in Congress.

With no record of accomplishment to his credit, other than the unpopular Obamacare and stimulus, Obama put forward a limited agenda of government intervention in the economy and the tax code in a laundry list of initiatives that did little to break new ground on any issue and was bereft of the passion and vision that drove his 2008 campaign for the presidency. All in all, it was 65 minutes that ought to worry Democrats more than it annoyed Republicans.

The president knows he will get nothing passed this year, and his speech reflected that reality. He began and ended with the killing of Osama bin Laden. In between he spoke of a peace dividend from the end of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he would use on building projects and green energy production. He called for a massive bailout of homeowners even as he pandered to public opinion by saying there would be no more bailouts for banks. He vowed to prosecute those responsible for the mortgage crisis and said teenagers would no longer be allowed to drop out of high school, no matter how much trouble they were causing. No mention was made of either Obamacare or the stimulus. Nor did he speak of the Keystone XL pipeline project that he cancelled. He called for lower taxes, less regulation and more exploitation of our natural resources even though he has raised taxes, increased regulation and made it more difficult for the nation to use more of its oil and gas and that of our neighbor Canada.

On foreign affairs, Obama spoke of victory in Iraq and Afghanistan and pretended he had increased Iran’s isolation rather than wasting three years on failed engagement and feckless diplomacy that gave the Islamist regime more time to build a nuclear weapon. He claimed to be Israel’s greatest friend even though he has used his time in office to pick constant fights with the government of the Jewish state. The shout out to wavering liberal Jewish Democrats betrayed an administration clearly worried about November.

The only substantive portion of the speech dealt with his desire to raise taxes on millionaires. Even if he got his way and raised the rates for millionaires to 30 percent it would do little to deal with the deficit or pay for the runaway costs of entitlements. But that isn’t really the point of his advocacy. Obama isn’t interested in raising those taxes to achieve an economic purpose. He has seized on this phony issue in order to exploit it politically this fall. For all of his talk about unity, his decision to let loose the dogs of class warfare rhetoric doesn’t so much seek division as to treat it as his golden ticket to re-election.

While Democrats may have been encouraged in recent weeks by the spectacle of Republican presidential candidates tearing each other apart, often employing the rhetorical devices of the left, they could not have been encouraged by the tepid tone and lack of vision in Obama’s speech. His unwillingness to speak about what he has done and instead concentrate on bashing the rich seemed to be more the strategy of a challenger rather than an incumbent.

His claim that America “is back” was empty braggadocio that makes little sense given the grave state of the economy. Obama’s rally cry about American greatness seemed stuck in nostalgia for a bygone era of massive government spending projects and an economy based in manufacturing rather than information and technology. The result of this empty talk was a speech that struck a sour, flat note just when he needed to inspire.

All of this should cause Democrats to worry just at the moment when they were starting to feel good about 2012. Though the president has many advantages heading into the campaign, including weak potential opponents, his inability to stand on his record and his loss of faith in the grand vision he ran in 2008 foreshadows serious problems later this year.