President Obama waved after finishing his final State of the Union address. Credit: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
President Obama’s Tuesday night address to Congress was less about the state of the union than the state of the presidency. And the state of this presidency is spent.
The signs of intellectual exhaustion were everywhere. Consider just three. After taking credit for success in Syria, raising American stature abroad and prevailing against the Islamic State — one claim more surreal than the next — Obama was forced to repair to his most well-worn talking point: “If you doubt America’s commitment — or mine — to see that justice is done, just ask Osama bin Laden.”
Really? Five years later, that’s all you’ve got?
Indeed, it is. What else can Obama say? Talk about Crimea? Cite Yemen, Libya, Iraq, the South China Sea, the return of the Taliban?
“Surveys show our standing around the world is higher than when I was elected to this office,” Obama boasted. Surveys, mind you. As if superpower influence is a Miss Universe contest. As if the world doesn’t see our allies adrift, our enemies on the march and our sailors kneeling, hands behind their heads, in front of armed Iranians, then forced to apologize on camera. (And our secretary of state expressing appreciation to Iran after their subsequent release.)
On the domestic side, Obama’s agenda was fairly short, in keeping with his lame-duck status. It was still startling when he worked up a passion for a great “new moonshot”: curing cancer.
Is there a more hackneyed national-greatness cliche than the idea that if we can walk on the moon . . . ? Or a more hackneyed facsimile of vision than being “the country that cures cancer”? Do Obama’s speechwriters not know that it was Richard Nixon who first declared a war on cancer — in 1971?
But to see just how bare is the cupboard of ideas of the nation’s most vaunted liberal visionary, we had to wait for the stunning anachronism that was the speech finale. It was designed for inspiration and uplift. And for some liberal observers, it actually worked. They were thrilled by the soaring tones as Obama called for, yes, a new politics — a post-partisan spirit of mutual understanding, rational discourse and respect for one’s opponents.
Why, it was hope and change all over again. You’d have thought we were back in 2008 with Obama’s moving, stirring promise of a new and higher politics that had young people swooning in the aisles and a TV anchor thrilling up the leg — and gave Obama the White House.
Or even further back to 2004, when Obama electrified the nation with hisDemocratic convention speech: “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”
Tuesday night, Obama did an undisguised, almost phrase-for-phrase reprise of that old promise. Earnestly, he urged us to “see ourselves not, first and foremost, as black or white, or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native-born, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans first.”
On cue, various commentators were moved by this sermon summoning our better angels. Good grief. I can understand falling for this 12 years ago. But now? A cheap self-quotation, a rhetorical mulligan, from a man who had two presidential terms to act on that transformative vision and instead gave us the most divisive, partisan, tendentious presidency since Nixon.
Rational discourse and respect for one’s opponents? This is a man who campaigned up and down the country throughout 2011 and 2012 saying that he cares about posterity, Republicans only about power.
The man who accused opponents of his Iran treaty of “making common cause” with Iranians “chanting death to America.”
The man who, after Paul Ryan proposed a courageous, controversial entitlement reform, gave a presidential address — with Ryan, invited by the White House, seated in the first row — calling his ideas un-American.
In a final touch of irony, Obama included in his wistful rediscovery of a more elevated politics an expression of reverence for, of all things, how “our founders distributed power between . . . branches of government.” This after years of repeatedly usurping Congress’ legislative power with unilateral executive orders and regulations on everything from criminal justice to climate change to immigration (already halted by the courts).
There is wisdom to the 22nd Amendment. After two terms, presidents are spent. Nothing shows it like a State of the Union valedictory repeating the hollow promises of the yesteryear candidate — as if the intervening presidency had never occurred.