Ethics & Public Policy Center

Obama’s Fictional Narrative

Published in Commentary magazine on January 25, 2012



I have some sympathy for President Obama’s speechwriters. A State of the Union address is inherently challenging to write because there’s a laundry list quality to them. (That was not the case for President Bush’s early State of the Union speeches, as we were able to focus on the war on terror, which created a clear hierarchy of priorities, allowing us to reject the usual input from various federal agencies). But what made Obama’s address last night doubly challenging is he clearly understands he cannot defend his record and won’t even try. That was obvious, given the glaring omissions in his speech. For example, Obamacare barely made a cameo appearance last night while his stimulus package was kept off-stage completely.

Then there is the fact that the president has no compelling second-term agenda to offer (something I wrote about yesterday). And since a State of the Union address imposes some constraints on Obama’s favorite rhetorical device these days, which is to accuse Republicans of being unpatriotic and very nearly sadistic, what’s a presidential speechwriter to do?

One option is to have Obama say in 2012 almost exactly what he said in 2010 and 2011. The problem with that is it’s not only rhetorically uncreative, it’s downright embarrassing. (See here) Another is to try to recapture the glory days of 2008 by attacking “cynicism” and declaring “Washington is broken.” The problem here is the president himself has done an extraordinary amount to deepen cynicism and add to the disrepair of Washington. A third option would be to parrot Bill Clinton’s approach, right down to advocating “small ball” proposals and using Clintonian phrases like siding with Americans who “work hard and play by the rules.” But we can all agree there’s something a bit pathetic in seeing a president who views himself as a world-historical figure giving more attention to his proposed Trade Enforcement Unit than to his signature domestic achievement.

In any event, last night the president embroidered all three approaches into his speech, along with the usual touch of class warfare rhetoric and a few dollops of misleading claims. (To take but one example: Obama again said billionaire Warren Buffett “pays a lower tax rate than his secretary,” even though this assertion is at best wildly incomplete. What the president won’t tell you is that (a) corporations pay up to a 35 percent tax on their profits before shareholders receive a plug nickel and (b) the real tax rate on corporate income paid to individuals through capital gains and dividends is roughly 45 percent once you count the tax on corporate profits.)

The result of all this was yet one more mediocre address by a president who was, his supporters assured us only a few years ago, the greatest American orator since Lincoln. Obama’s State of the Union address was a political document, not a governing one, and the goal of this speech was transparently political: use poll-driven language and poll-driven proposals to appeal to white working-class Americans, a demographic which Obama is doing terribly with right now.

But what was perhaps most striking is the State of the Union address last night had almost nothing useful to say about how to create economic growth. Beyond that, there was no correspondence between the speech and the objective needs of the nation. The greatest domestic threat we face is our exploding debt. The main driver of it is entitlement programs, most especially Medicare. Which means the structural reform and modernization of Medicare should be a top priority for America. Yet the president not only isn’t addressing that problem; he’s done a tremendous amount during the last three years to worsen it. And now, with nine months to go before re-election, he’s attempting to distract the polity by offering up a counter-narrative that goes like this: The main problem in America today is income inequality, not the unprecedented projected trajectory of our debt. (Whatever one makes of income inequality, and there are problematic elements to it, it does not belong in the same galaxy of concerns as our exploding debt.)

Obama is doing everything in his power to promote this fiction. It is the duty of the loyal opposition and every honest public intellectual to call the president out on this.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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