President Obama’s final SOTU was a ‘what’s wrong with this picture?’ snapshot.
Starting with the political theater of the whole thing. Which is embarrassing for everyone.
Political commentator Ed Morrissey saw it as “a parody of monarchical excess“, altogether unnecessary and irrelevant. Right. Return to the Jeffersonian practice of sending in a report and save us all from the “droning, laundry-list campaign speeches of grand spectacle, but very little import.”
Bill McGurn had keen foresight of the single visual that would capture what the president got wrong, even before he arrived to great fanfare or spoke, because
a White House teaser reveals one of his planned props for the evening: “We leave one seat empty in the First Lady’s State of the Union Guest Box for the victims of gun violence who no longer have a voice.”
Every time I think this president can’t outdo his audacity, he does. He recently held an emotional press conference to announce executive action on gun violence, choked up over the innocent children gunned down senselessly. Where has this emotion been for the past seven years of his presidency while in his and my hometown, innocent children, women, men, grandparents, teens, promising youth have been shot and killed in gun violence every single day on the south side of Chicago, the very familiar territory of his early days as a community organizer and fledgling politician? Even some community leaders there who hold rallies have called out the president for his lack of presence or voice on this most notorious of neighborhood turf wars by street gangs, year in and year out. I recall once when he virtually phoned in a message to be delivered at the rally, delivered by proxy. Why seven years of the bully pulpit not directed to that, to them, to promising young lives snuffed out by guns and gangs? Only to have the final SOTU address gun violence with an empty chair, for the missing?
How symbolic, McGurn continues.
The spectacle is made for President Obama. After all, this is the man who strode out on a stage of foam Greek columns when he accepted his party’s nomination for the presidency. How appropriate that in his last State of the Union he now opts for the empty chair routine used to such derision by Clint Eastwood at the last Republican National Convention.
Then again, for Mr. Obama the maneuver has always been the message. From his 2008 campaign appearance before the Berlin Wall (where he declared himself “a fellow citizen of the world”) to his decision to accept the Nobel Peace Prize before he had in fact done anything, the stage has always upstaged the substance. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama’s penchant for the beau geste carries a high price for Americans, not to mention other, less fortunate citizens of the world.
Start with foreign policy. Though Candidate Obama inveighed mightily against the U.S. intervention in Iraq, he also campaigned on the idea that Iraq had distracted us from winning “the necessary war” in Afghanistan. When he announced to the American people his own surge of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in December 2009, the cadets at West Point were drafted to serve as the dramatic backdrop.
Today we can see the same speech shows that more important to him than winning this war was the withdrawal date he tucked in the next sentence. Later his own defense secretary, Robert Gates, would record in his memoir how he came to the conclusion that his boss “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his.” Meanwhile, Americans in uniform would continue to die for this strategy.
The painful truth.
The domestic side has also been decided by high theater. When Mr. Obama was first elected, such was his popularity (and the low standing of the GOP), he could have done almost anything. On cue he opted for what he called “the most sweeping economic recovery package in our history,” an $800 billion stimulus that never did stimulate.
ObamaCare followed a year later. Notwithstanding lopsided Democratic majorities in both houses, Mr. Obama still had trouble getting his signature issue through. A more modest president might have found ways to address the problem—i.e., the millions of Americans who could not afford health insurance—without upending the entire market…
This has been the steady fare of the Obama years. Overseas his insistence on the grand gesture has led the president to pretend that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan means we’re no longer at war. This may be popular in the faculty lounge, but in the real world Islamic State beheads Americans, Afghanistan teeters on chaos and Iraqi cities such as Ramadi, liberated from al Qaeda in the original surge, now have to be re-liberated all over again from Islamic State.
At home the president’s Big Ideas (unintended consequences be damned) have seen millions of citizens losing the health-care plans the president promised them they could keep, a record number of Americans giving up on work, and an anemic growth rate of 2%.
The gimmick Mr. Obama has now chosen for his final State of the Union, meant to highlight his end run around the Second Amendment, is fully consistent with this past. But seven years in, an empty chair in the first lady’s box only reinforces images of an empty suit at the podium.
And one more thing, the one thing that got to me more than any other, and there were plenty of others. It was the moment I talked back to the TV, the galling moment when he lectured us all once again, and this time, once too often. Columnist Stephen Hayes had the exact same reaction I did, and expressed it on television in a panel roundup following the speech.
Hayes told Bret Baier he found it a little unbelievable that the president devoted a whole section of his speech to lamenting our broken politics and calling for civility.
Bingo. A jaw-dropper. He was lecturing us on civility.
He brought up a White House advisor comparing the GOP’s fight on the budget to “people with a bomb strapped to their chest,” Obama himself saying Iranian hardliners have “common cause” with the GOP, and the president saying Republican candidates are “doing the work of the terrorists.”
“And now this guy’s gonna lecture us about civility?!” Hayes bewilderedly cried. “The president––it’s not just that he misdiagnoses the problem, the fact that there is this incivility… it’s that he doesn’t understand he’s the cause of so much incivility in our politics!”
There it is. That was the moment when I said the same thing to the television. Our country is more fractured, splintered, divided, intolerant, angry, hostile and uncivil now than it was before he came into office, or so it seems. The president who has used his office in a very unpresidential way, beneath the dignity of the Office of the President, to target for criticism political ‘enemies’, a whole cable news network, particular reporters, the party opposing his party and politics, citizens who hold certain beliefs he opposes, his predecessor, police officers in certain locales, religious groups and others, now lecturing us on incivility in our country, was just too much.
The state of America is actually better than that, but it’s up to Americans to prove it now.