President Obama's State of the Union address should unnerve Democrats in Congress and throughout the country. It was one of the worst State of the Union addresses in modern times — a stunning thing for a man who won the presidency in large measure based on the power and uplift of his rhetoric.
For those who hoped the president would use this speech as a pivot to the center, a la Bill Clinton in the aftermath of the 1994 mid-term elections, the speech was a major letdown. Much of what he offered up last night was symbolic. His budget freeze on a subset of domestic discretionary spending — which might amount to $15 billion — will hardly put a dent into our $1.35 trillion deficit. His budget commission, which will have no real power or authority, is worthless. His proposal to cut the capital gains tax for small business investment is a step in the right direction — but it will fall far short of what is needed to generate jobs and economic growth. One sensed there was no urgency or passion behind his effort to help small businesses and the private sector.
At the same time, Obama did not back away from his commitment to pass health care legislation that is incoherent, wildly expensive, unpopular, and which would do enormous damage to our economy. Obama also stuck to his guns on cap-and-trade legislation, which would be a job killer.
And even as he castigated Washington for being “unable or unwilling to solve any of our problems,” he continued to champion an agenda that would concentrate unprecedented power there.
If substance was the main take-away of this address, it would have been merely mediocre. But what made it downright harmful for Obama and Democrats was its tone. The speech was defensive and petulant, backward-looking and condescending, petty and graceless. He didn't persuade people; he lectured them. What was on display last night was a man of unsurpassed self-righteousness engaged in constant self-justification. His first year in office has been, by almost every measure, a failure — and it is perceived as a failure by much of the public. Mr. Obama cannot stand this fact; it is clearly eating away at him. So he decided to use his first State of the Union to press his case. What he did was to set back his cause.
What made the speech a bit bizarre, and somewhat alarming, is how detached from reality the president is. After having spent much of his time blaming his predecessor for his own failures, he said he was “not interested in re-litigating the past.” Barack Obama lamented waging a “perpetual campaign” — even though that is what the president, David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel, Robert Gibbs and others in his employ do on a daily basis. He said, “Washington may think that saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, is just part of the game” — yet his White House has played that very game with zest and delight.
Having gone on a spending spree that is unprecedented in American history, the president castigated the political class for “leaving a mountain of debt” to future generations. Having helped to create the worst fiscal situation in our lifetime, he says he will “refuse to pass the problems on to another generation of Americans.” He says, “If we do not take meaningful steps to rein in our debt, it could damage our markets, increase the cost of borrowing, and jeopardize our recovery” — despite the fact that future generations will have to work to undo the deficit and debt he had done so much to increase.
It was as if we were being lectured on marital fidelity by John Edwards or Mark Sanford.
The president criticized the “outsized influence of lobbyists in Washington” — as though he had no memory of the squalid backroom deals that were cut in order to try to secure passage of health care legislation but that helped lead to its demise. He spoke of the need to “do our work openly,” even though Obama broke his promise to allow health care negotiations to appear on C-SPAN and he worked with the House and Senate leadership behind closed doors. He called on Congress to “continue down the path of earmark reform” — even though he eagerly signed legislation that contained around 8,500 earmarks. He claimed he is ending American involvement in the Iraq war — even though the Status of Forces Agreement that will end American involvement in the Iraq war was signed by President Bush. He said the United States must “always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity” — even as he and his secretary of state have consciously downplayed our commitment to both, whether in our dealings with Iran or China or any of a number of other nations.
On and on this game went, late into the night.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of last night's speech, though, was that Obama spoke as if the last year hadn't happened; as if he had not been president; and as if Congress had not been controlled by Democrats. He sought to portray himself as an outsider and a reformer, an antidote to cynicism, and a post-partisan, unifying force. He wanted to cast himself as an idealist, an inspirational figure, Mr. Hope & Change.
Barack Obama was, in short, trying to recapture the magic from his presidential campaign.
But that moment is gone with the wind. The charm and aesthetic appeal have all but disappeared. And so his words came across as not only stale but surreal. It is as if Obama was speaking in a parallel universe.
What we are seeing play out on a very large stage, it seems, is a man of extraordinary self-regard having to deal with punishing political set-backs, with the fact that his high hopes have come crashing down around him. The nation has turned against his agenda. They are turning against his party. And they are tiring of him as well. This is something he cannot seem to process. So the president marches ahead, pretending up is down and east is west, embracing an agenda the country has rejected and that is doing terrible damage to his own party.
It was quite a thing to witness.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.