The most interesting aspect of President Obama’s State of the Union speech was not the triumphalist tone with which he trumpeted the recent better economic news or his call for higher taxes, more spending, or his threats to veto any bills passed by a Republican Congress that he didn’t like. All that was expected as the president tacked hard to the left as he began his final two years in office. The most interesting things about the speech were the items that were left out of it. It was those absent acknowledgements of facts that gave the annual example of presidential theater a tone that was so divorced from the reality of Obama’s six years in office.
The most important omission was the fact that there were 83 fewer Democrats in the chamber this year than the first time he gave a State of the Union speech and dozens less than the number of his fellow party members that were there last year. The historic rejection of both the president’s party and his policies in last November’s midterm elections was treated in the speech as if it had never happened. Though this is the same man who was fond of telling his Republican opponents that elections have consequences, as far as he was concerned, the midterms not only were irrelevant to his assessment of the issues of the day, but he spoke as if the GOP had not increased their majority in the House and taken back the Senate.
While this may be taken as a quibble, it is actually an important point since rather than take into account the fact that a more conservative Congress was now in session, the president spoke as if he was addressing a Democratic-run legislative branch. He set forth a laundry list of liberal agenda items that not only hadn’t a prayer of being passed. Indeed, he had not even consulted congressional leaders to try to get them to consider his ideas but just put them forward as if the views of both his opponents and the voters who had sent them to Washington were unworthy of his notice.
This is significant not just because his presentation of a populist program seemed more about winning the news cycle than passing laws. A willingness to speak of something as true irrespective of its actual connection to truth was the primary characteristic of a speech that at times lost all touch with reality.
All presidents treat anything positive that happens on their watch as being the product of their genius. So we can perhaps forgive the same president whose policies lay behind the slowest and most anemic recovery since World War Two to treat the recent uptick in the economy as solely the result of his heretofore-unsuccessful policies. We may also forgive him for taking credit for lower oil prices that are entirely the result of foreign regimes rather than U.S. policy.
Less forgivable were his boasts of the work of his administration to help veterans since he also omitted the fact that he had spent years ignoring warning signs of corruption and scandal at the Veterans Administration on his watch that led to the death of vets. So too was his bragging about the wonders of ObamaCare while failing to mention the millions who lost coverage or had their premiums skyrocket as well as the prospect of far worse problems in 2015 once the government mandates that he had previously postponed are implemented. His claim that his program to promote community colleges would lower the costs for it to zero only count as truthful if you ignore the fact that the taxpayers will be paying through the nose for a plan with dubious benefits to the country.
Abroad, he paid lip service to the struggle against anti-Semitism and for freedom of speech even though he conspicuously stayed away from the Paris unity march after the Charlie Hebdo terror attack. He claimed to have isolated Russia’s Putin regime after its aggression against Ukraine even though invasions of that country’s territory continue with Moscow rightly believing Obama to be a paper tiger that can be ignored with impunity. He said he had stopped the ISIS terrorists in their tracks when in fact the desultory American bombing campaign has done nothing to turn the tide in a war that the Islamists are clearly winning.
Even worse was his claim that he had halted the Iranian regime’s progress toward a nuclear weapon. The weak interim deal he concluded with Tehran in November 2013 did nothing of the kind. Instead it gave the Islamists a seal of international approval for holding onto their nuclear infrastructure and discarded the economic leverage the West had over them. In a manipulation of language that was Orwellian in scope he asserted that an attempt by a bipartisan coalition in Congress to pass sanctions that would strengthen his hand in the next round of talks (that he has allowed to be extended twice in violation of past pledges) would hurt diplomacy. Understandably Iran doesn’t wish to be pressured by the West to give up its nuclear ambitions. What is not understandable is Obama’s support for that demand. Unmentioned was a clear push for détente with Iran that extends to support for its Syrian ally Bashar Assad that has clear priority over the nuclear issue.
Also not mentioned in the speech was the spread of Boko Haram Islamist terror in Africa, an issue that at least for a few days seemed to have the interest of his wife.
But perhaps the worst aspect of the speech was its conclusion in which the president disingenuously called for a new politics in which partisan passions would be put aside as both sides worked for the betterment of the country. These lines came only minutes after the president threatened to veto any bill he didn’t like and derided his opponents as straw men with questionable motives.
This is the administration that likened Tea Party supporters in Congress to terrorists. This is also the president that used his State of the Union to concentrate on partisan talking points rather than suggestions that had a chance of passage in a Congress that is now controlled by the other party.
For the same man to then pose as the avatar of compromise is more than disingenuous. It speaks to a credibility gap that is as wide as the Grand Canyon. In that context Obama’s mention of his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention in which he sought to portray himself as post-partisan was equal parts nostalgia and satire.
In this day and age what matters about the State of the Union address is not so much its specifics but whether it helps the president gain a point or two in the polls. Since Obama’s numbers have gone up recently due to the economy, he may judge his speech a success. But if anyone really wants to know why Washington is so dysfunctional, a look at a speech that was equal parts partisan demagoguery and fiction speaks volumes about everything that is wrong with contemporary American politics.