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Topic: State of the Union speech

The Gap Between Obama’s SOTU Rhetoric and Reality

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.

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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.

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Who’s the Real Extremist? Obama or GOP?

The prevalent narrative of Washington politics over the last two years has been one in which Republican hardliners have consistently torpedoed efforts to reconcile the two parties. The Tea Party has been the scapegoat for D.C. gridlock as efforts to derail ObamaCare and other aspects of President Obama’s agenda have been highlighted as proof of this faction’s disdain for compromise and any notion of accommodation with those across the political aisle. Their suicidal charge into the government shutdown in the fall of 2013 was treated, perhaps not unfairly, as not only evidence of a lack of political judgment but also their disdain for the notion of governance itself. But by presenting a political agenda tonight in his State of the Union speech that is as ideological and divorced from political reality as anything cooked up by bitter-end Tea Partiers like Rep. Louis Gohmert, President Obama will demonstrate that it is not just the GOP that must cope with extremists. The Democrats’ obstructionists are not their House backbenchers. Rather, it is their leader who is most determined to widen the divide between the parties and make Washington ungovernable.

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The prevalent narrative of Washington politics over the last two years has been one in which Republican hardliners have consistently torpedoed efforts to reconcile the two parties. The Tea Party has been the scapegoat for D.C. gridlock as efforts to derail ObamaCare and other aspects of President Obama’s agenda have been highlighted as proof of this faction’s disdain for compromise and any notion of accommodation with those across the political aisle. Their suicidal charge into the government shutdown in the fall of 2013 was treated, perhaps not unfairly, as not only evidence of a lack of political judgment but also their disdain for the notion of governance itself. But by presenting a political agenda tonight in his State of the Union speech that is as ideological and divorced from political reality as anything cooked up by bitter-end Tea Partiers like Rep. Louis Gohmert, President Obama will demonstrate that it is not just the GOP that must cope with extremists. The Democrats’ obstructionists are not their House backbenchers. Rather, it is their leader who is most determined to widen the divide between the parties and make Washington ungovernable.

Much will be written today and tomorrow about the president’s “Robin Hood” tax plan in which the wealthy will be taxed to supposedly benefit the middle class, even though the details of his scheme reveals that many of those who are not rich will also bear the burden of this plan. Though couched in fresh rhetoric about inequality, the entire package must be understood as nothing more than recycled class warfare and big government tax and spend policies familiar to Americans from generations of failed liberal experiments.

Some see this new populism as an attempt by the president to invest his new and more favorable poll ratings so as to put the new GOP Congress on the defensive. This will transform him from a pure lame-duck president to one who will be able to thwart the legislative branch in any effort to put forth a Republican vision for the country. Others less convincingly see it as a trial run for the ideas that could help Hillary Clinton win the 2016 presidential election, a theory that ignores Obama’s egoism, a characteristic that must be taken into account when discussing anything done by the White House.

But no matter what the reasons for this strategy or whether, as liberals hope, it will serve as the foundation for future debates in their efforts to turn back the page to the era of unabashed big government and income redistribution efforts, Obama’s decision to tack hard to the left must also be seen in the context of the ongoing discussion about how to make Washington less dysfunctional.

Let’s be frank. If Tea Partiers were bashed for prizing their ideological purity over the obligation to work for consensus and compromise, what then should we think about a president who is equally unconcerned with working with a Republican Congress?

Nobody expects Obama to present Congress with a conservative wish list or to bow down to GOP demands on issues where he disagrees. But by presenting his own wish list that is as ideologically extreme as anything uttered by Ted Cruz, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that he is as unconcerned with compromise as that firebrand. So why isn’t his agenda being viewed in the same light as that of the Tea Party?

First of all, he’s the president and there’s a big difference between presenting a set of proposals from the bully pulpit of the State of the Union address and one put forward by a mere representative or senator. The president is in a unique position to steer the debate and it is only natural that he be given a certain degree of deference to do that.

But the president’s proposals aren’t merely a statement of his vision for the country. They are a salvo fired in the direction of a Congress that was just elected to pursue a completely different vision. Better presidents than Barack Obama have been presented with similarly difficult positions and responded, as did Bill Clinton, with an attempt to find common ground rather than a slap in the face. Rather than laying the foundation for the election of a second President Clinton or bolstering a legacy that is mere ephemera, the only real purpose of this raft of tax and spend ideas is to win the current news cycle and discomfit his opponents. The one aspect of being president at which Barack Obama has always excelled is campaigning and pure partisan politics.

Obama made no effort to discuss his proposals with the leadership of the House or the Senate or to get their input because they are not being presented with the idea that they will get serious consideration. They are mere rhetorical aspirations, words that mean nothing.

If that is how the president wishes to spend the public’s time at the annual event, that is his privilege. But if the public disdains Republicans for being obstructionists who don’t care about working with their opponents, then the question arises as to why Obama’s speech is being presented as being any different from their efforts. The answer is that the same liberal media bias that has been an essential element to the president’s ability to survive scandal and failure is acting as his safety net again.

As much as the public blames Congress and dislikes the Republicans for their devotion to their principles, it is not unfair to ask the mainstream media that is heralding Obama’s proposals as another installment of the New Deal to ask themselves if there is any real difference between his ideological rigidity and that of his opponents. The honest answer, and one we’re not hearing or reading much about today, is that there is none. The obstructionist-in-chief’s “Robin Hood” plan for government will do as much to make compromise impossible as any Ted Cruz speech or the actions of House Tea Partiers and is as unlikely to become law as any Tea Party manifesto. The 2015 edition of the State of the Union speech is merely more evidence that Obama is guilty of the same sin for which his foes have been routinely denounced over the course of his presidency.

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Obama Has Already Proved He Can’t Govern

One of the highlights of President Obama’s State of the Union speech tonight is his announcement of an executive order raising the minimum wage for those working for contractors doing business with the federal government. The measure is a political trifecta for the president: he gets to bypass Congress, play to the populist grandstand, and inject some life into a moribund presidency with three years left before it officially expires. Tonight’s event and the speaking tour on which the president embarks tomorrow is designed to send the less-than-credible message that he is very much in charge of the government, has the political juice to beat the Republicans while raising his poor favorability ratings, thus reassuring himself, if no one else, that he is no lame duck.

The union that the president will claim tonight is still strong, though it is not a dictatorship. While the commander in chief has the power to make foreign policy and wage war and—thanks to the courts—can impose environmental regulations, the Constitution set up impassable obstacles to prevent a president from ruling without the consent of Congress. The notion that Obama can govern by executive order is just as much an illusion as the idea that imposing higher minimum wages will improve the economy and create more jobs rather than lose them.

But while Obama will garner some partisan applause by unilaterally raising the wages of some workers to $10.10 from $7.25, the impact of this measure is as much trickery as is Obama’s belief that he can govern alone bypassing Congress. The president’s frustration at his inability to get his liberal laundry passed by Congress may be understandable. But freelancing from the Oval Office isn’t the answer to divided government. Good-faith negotiations and deal making—practices to which this aloof president has always disdained—are the answer.

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One of the highlights of President Obama’s State of the Union speech tonight is his announcement of an executive order raising the minimum wage for those working for contractors doing business with the federal government. The measure is a political trifecta for the president: he gets to bypass Congress, play to the populist grandstand, and inject some life into a moribund presidency with three years left before it officially expires. Tonight’s event and the speaking tour on which the president embarks tomorrow is designed to send the less-than-credible message that he is very much in charge of the government, has the political juice to beat the Republicans while raising his poor favorability ratings, thus reassuring himself, if no one else, that he is no lame duck.

The union that the president will claim tonight is still strong, though it is not a dictatorship. While the commander in chief has the power to make foreign policy and wage war and—thanks to the courts—can impose environmental regulations, the Constitution set up impassable obstacles to prevent a president from ruling without the consent of Congress. The notion that Obama can govern by executive order is just as much an illusion as the idea that imposing higher minimum wages will improve the economy and create more jobs rather than lose them.

But while Obama will garner some partisan applause by unilaterally raising the wages of some workers to $10.10 from $7.25, the impact of this measure is as much trickery as is Obama’s belief that he can govern alone bypassing Congress. The president’s frustration at his inability to get his liberal laundry passed by Congress may be understandable. But freelancing from the Oval Office isn’t the answer to divided government. Good-faith negotiations and deal making—practices to which this aloof president has always disdained—are the answer.

The actual number of workers affected by the wage increase he will impose on federal contractors will be small. But even so, it shows just how great the disconnect between the president’s rhetoric and the reality of job creation has become. Nowhere in the speech or in the campaign-style pep he’ll give later this week is there any specificity about where the money to pay the higher wages will come from or what the government will do to help the workers who may lose their jobs altogether as a result of cutbacks that companies will be forced to endure as a result of this transparent grandstanding.

The point of the president’s entirely disingenuous focus on the minimum wage is to preview the Democrats’ intention to play the populist card this year with their bogus concerns about income inequality. Although the measure polls well, the increase will do more to help middle-class teenagers rather than to help the working poor who understand that minimum-wage positions are intended, to be gateway jobs, not a way to permanently support families. Indeed, most Americans understand that this is, at best, a sideshow intended,  like so much else in the liberal repertory, to divert them from the larger issue of a still weak economy.

Five years into the Obama presidency, it is no longer possible for the president to credibly blame, as he has done every previous year, the country’s economic woes on his predecessor. Instead, he will blame Congress, specifically the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, for thwarting his agenda.

But the problem for the president is not just that he has never learned the art of negotiating with Republicans or even with Democrats who disagree with him. His bid to govern unilaterally through executive orders is, after all, nothing new. Even in his first two years, when he had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, he was even more intransigent. He pushed through a health-care bill that vastly expanded the reach and power of the federal government without a single Republican vote and has since persevered in implementing this ObamaCare disaster by choosing to ignore and to suppress any criticisms of this gargantuan error rather than to try to deal with its flaws. Thus, we have already seen Obama’s approach to unilateral governance, and the results are as bad as his critics expected.

Try as they might to change the subject, the negative impact of ObamaCare on the economy and the lives of millions of Americans will remain the single most important domestic issue in 2014. The minimum wage is economic snake oil. But so, too, is the president’s feckless effort to pretend he can magically bypass Congress. Rather than breathe new life into a presidency that has gone seriously off the rails, this stunt will merely confirm that the White House is as helpless to raise the president’s poll numbers as it is to improve the economy. Rhetoric may have won Barack Obama the presidency, but it cannot make up for his inability to govern.

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