Rare is the president who walked into the White House facing larger challenges than Barack Obama. The housing market collapsed after a government-fueled bubble popped, the banking industry was in shambles, the economy was entering a recession, and the nation’s long-term budget stability was in doubt.
Much to his credit Obama was uncowed. “Now is not the time for small plans,” Obama firmly said in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. “At defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn’t come from Washington. Change comes to Washington.”
And he did have big plans, captured in grand rhetoric like promising that these would be the days when future generations would look back and say “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” but best summed up by one simple phrase: The audacity of hope.
But faced with enormous challenges on the grandest stage President Obama came up small. He didn’t change Washington, he got lost in it. His ideas weren’t new, but instead fashioned from the same tax-and-spend spare parts of presidents past. He was always a skilled orator and a flashy showman, but like the Wizard of Oz he was best when he stayed behind the curtain.
Tuesday’s State of the Union address was the culmination of Obama’s shortcomings. Gone was his grand vision of a better future, replaced by the dreary line, “What I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals.” None of his ideas were new. We’ve heard the rehashed and reheated rhetoric about closing loopholes, funding research, expanding pre-kindergarten education, and pursuing green energy all before.
Even at his most aspirational the best the president could muster was a plan to convene meetings on carbon emissions and host a summit on working families. The rest of the time was spent discussing small changes to federal policy like raising the minimum wage for future federal contractors. And big policies like gun-safety legislation and immigration were reduced to scattered paragraphs in a meandering speech.
Many are comparing the speech the speech to small-ball—an effort to succeed in many small initiatives to create the election year illusion of having done something grander. But the more apt sports metaphor is that his speech was a glaring example of prevent defense. President Obama hesitated from saying anything too brash, too bold for fear of the political fallout of not being able to follow through.
What happened to our audacious president? It’s a question Ron Fournier attempts to answer in the National Journal:
Obama seems to have surrendered to the limits of his most-powerful office. While giving lip service to unilateral action, congressional outreach, and mobilizing the public, Obama doesn’t seem to have faith in any of these customary tools of presidential leadership. He obsesses over GOP recalcitrance and other “structural institutional realities,” a phrase he trotted out for The New Yorker’s David Remnick, a sympathetic biographer. Rather than fight for a spot on Mount Rushmore, or at least his own chapter in history books, Obama seems content to “just try to get our paragraph right.”
He also told Remnick that people are looking for “other flavors … somebody else out there who can give me that spark of inspiration or excitement.” He’s right, and you had to wonder during the State of the Union address whether Obama’s time had passed … whether even a great address could move the needle … whether they’ve tuned him out.
It’s fascinating that a leader who was once considered to be the voice of a generation, a president whose cult of personality has been unmatched, is now reduced to white noise. Many will attempt to blame others. An obstinate Congress, a recalcitrant Tea Party, or a divided nation. But the real problems is that Obama was never able to rise to the particular challenges of his presidency. After five years, he has been cowed.