We were promised a "thematic" State of the Union address. The theme tonight seemed to be "platitudes and happy talk." It did not lack bromides: "The future we want opportunity and security for our families; a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids all that is within our reach. But it will only happen if we work together," he said. "It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates." What did we learn?
First, the president is either utterly unaware of or unwilling to admit his own role in perpetuating divisiveness and polarization. After seven years of accusing Republicans of everything from "social Darwinism" to putting party above country, he now insists we "need to fix our politics." It seems that is what he promised to do seven years ago, and obviously was exceptionally unsuccessful. Instead of compromise and conciliation, he rebuffed a "grand bargain" and jammed through Obamacare on a party-line vote and abused executive power to go around Congress on immigration, guns and the environment. Instead of making an effort to woo Congress, he ignored even his own party. When he now says, "It doesn't work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic", it is hard to take seriously.
Second, the president chooses not to recognize reality on the international scene, where insults and challenges to the U.S. are commonplace. He insists our enemies aren't get stronger. He should ask our allies. In his view, "as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into [terrorists'] hands." Even worse, he repeated aloud that the Islamic State "does not threaten our existence." That was greeted with dead silence. Hillary Clinton wouldn't dare adopt that nonchalant view, nor I suspect with Democratic lawmakers running in 2016.
He still swings at straw men: "We also can't try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis. That's not leadership; that's a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. It's the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq and we should have learned it by now." He ignores calls even within his own party for a more robust foreign policy. His surreal declaration about Syria "We're partnering with local forces and leading international efforts to help that broken society pursue a lasting peace" ignores the massive suffering, the encampment of the Islamic State and presence of pro-Assad and Russian forces. He seems entirely oblivious to the disasters, unmoved by our loss of influence. The hundreds of thousands dead in Syria got no mention.
Third, despite Tuesday's seizure of Navy boats and multiple provocations from Iran he insists that "with sanctions and principled diplomacy, to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. As we speak, Iran has rolled back its nuclear program, shipped out its uranium stockpile, and the world has avoided another war." Avoided another war?! We have wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere. The brevity of his remarks on Iran however suggest it has not turned out to be the historic deal he painted it to be.
Fourth, he is out of material. There is no new content to his vision of the future. Free college, free pre-K, and keeping Obamacare. There is, it is said, there is nothing new under the sun. Or in his speech and agenda. He defines the problems (e.g. globalization), but his solutions consist of more government with no connection to the challenges at hand. His big idea eradicating cancer is noble but has been proceeding apace without VP Joe Biden, whom he named to lead the effort.
Sixth, Democrats are ready to play another round of "granny over the cliff" scare tactics. ("Social Security and Medicare are more important than ever; we shouldn't weaken them, we should strengthen them.") You would never know we have a massive debt. He's given up on that, and has no plans to address it.
Seventh, he really does not understand how his policies affect the private sector. He seemed genuinely concerned that regulations and "red tape" crimp business. Of course, he has thrown massive regulations from EPA to Obamacare onto the backs of business.
Eighth, it wasn't short, running well over an hour.
Finally, his cheery tone and "everything is getting better" tone is totally at odds with the national mood. Most Americans think the economy is not vibrant, watch the U.S. getting kicked around the world, and have seen no real effort to address cronyism. (Break up the big banks? End energy subsidies?) The contrast between his serenity and candidates on both sides channeling public anger is dramatic.
Some might think that with his bland final State of the Union, Obama is going out with a whimper. But our enemies won't let up. Never have so many hot spots popped up with so many aggressive foes and disheartened allies. International turmoil and puny growth threaten minimal gains. If only reality weren't such a drag. Unfortunately, the next president will have a heck of a mess to clean up.