“Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different.” – President Obama, 2015 State of the Union address
Sadly, Americans were left with little choice but to imagine this scenario because President Obama effectively dismantled any opportunity to achieve it in his speech.
Gone are the days when the president could talk meaningfully about moving beyond a future of “red states” and “blue states,” the famous line from his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. Of course, even that brief moment of idealism, was tainted by cynicism. Although it is a little remembered anecdote, Obama was furious after having to water down the quote after learning that John Kerry was going to say something similar.
“That f***er is trying to steal a line from my speech,” then-Senator Obama reportedly griped to David Axelrod.
With the benefit of hindsight it’s now clear that moment is a microcosm of Obama’s presidency. His words suggests that President Obama exists above the fray, willing and able to shuck off politics as usual and instead carry a mantle of hope and change, but his actions suggest an ego-driven pettiness that has brought out the worst in Washington.
One hint as to the reason for that strange dualism may lie in another instance of Obama using a choice word.
“You know, I actually believe my own bullshit,” Obama told journalist Richard Wolffe in 2013.
It would be one thing if that meant he was steadfast in his deeply held beliefs. But it’s quite another when he uses it as an excuse to ignore the viewpoints of others because he believes he’s never wrong. Unfortunately, it is the latter reading that seemed to be at work in the State of the Union, a fact that even Obama apologists were forced to admit. As Rick Klein writes for ABC News:
Obama made no mention of the fact that voters rejected his party in November, in historic fashion. He did not reference the new Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, or the man who sat over his left shoulder as he has at every State of the Union since 2011, House Speaker John Boehner.
If anything, the president sketched an economic agenda designed to provoke rather than accommodate Republicans — programs that include vast new spending and higher taxes on the wealthy.
Or Peter Baker writes for the New York Times:
Never mind that his party actually lost the most recent elections, delivering control of both houses of Congress to the opposition for the first time during his presidency. . .
Watching an emboldened Mr. Obama, it would have been easy to forget that he was standing there just two months after the biggest electoral repudiation of his presidency. Indeed, with economic indicators on the rise and his own poll numbers rebounding slightly, he made no reference at all to the midterm elections, offered no concessions about his own leadership and proposed no compromises to accommodate the political reality.
Of course, no one expected President Obama to stand on the dais and say, “You were right all along guys, I’ll just step aside for the next two years.” But the president didn’t have to mention the outcome of the midterms in order to deliver a conciliatory message. There can still be a “a better politics,” as Obama said, but to achieve it he should have found ways to work with Republicans to reduce the cost of higher education, to highlight the progress being made on a bipartisan tax reform package, to find areas of agreement on things like infrastructure investment, or even to suggest a viable path for admittedly partisan issues like immigration reform.
President Obama didn’t discuss any of that. Instead, he offered up a paean to his liberal base while dangling a dollar on a fishhook to the middle class. That’s a roadmap for winning the next presidential elections, but it’s a poor guide for making any progress in the intervening two years.
The president may have “no more campaigns to run,” a fact he seemed to relish by adding that, “I know, because I won both of them.” But as James Antle writes for National Interest: “No matter how convinced Obama is of the rightness of his ideas, there are still two houses of Congress. Republicans should know. They won both of them.”
That’s not trading tit-for-tat, it’s just a request to put aside the triviality and start working together.