Obama has effectively slammed the door on his last two years in office. In last week’s State of the Union, he explicitly, implicitly, and thoroughly rebuffed everyone who does not agree with him. In contrast to what many have said, his dismissal went beyond being partisan to being personal.
To understand what Obama did in his latest State of the Union, we must appreciate that these addresses are far more than speeches, they are events. Other than the parties’ presidential convention acceptance speeches and Inaugural addresses, this is the nation‘s biggest political platform. Only the president gets this unique opportunity, and he gets it just once a year.
Occasionally the event is heightened further by the circumstances surrounding it. This was such a year. Republicans now fully control Congress and Obama enters his presidency’s final stretch. Obama had the opportunity to formally set the tone, for both the remainder of his presidency and Washington’s new political dynamic. Instead of setting it, he lowered it — and with it, expectations for what Washington can accomplish over the next two years.
A similarly heightened situation prevailed in 1996, when Clinton, after a year of painful political fights with new House and Senate Republican majorities, used his State of the Union to state “the era of big government is over.” It was aimed right at his adversaries. Few remember that he did not abandon a government approach, going on to say “but we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.”
At an important juncture, Clinton reached out to Republicans with one hand, while holding on to his own position with the other. He also held on to the White House, convincingly winning reelection later that year.
Obama did just the opposite last week. There was no reach out here, only a slap down. Obama’s State of the Union was a pep rally for big government – its era may have been over for Bill Clinton, but it was just beginning for Barack Obama.
First, Obama extolled the economy and took credit for it. Then he issued veto threats for any attempts to alter what he had wrought through legislation or his unilateral use of executive power. Next, at every issue he raised for consideration, he had government solutions to throw at them, coupled with tax increases to pay for them. He sought neither common ground for discussion, nor a consensus way to proceed.
In case there was any mistaking where he was going, he piled on ridicule to remove any doubt.
When he approached energy policy, he skirted it – specifically the Keystone pipeline – disdaining the vision of pipeline supporters by stating “let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline.”
When he raised Cuba, he dismissed past policy, which had existed for decades and across Republican and Democrat administrations, as “long past its expiration date,” and said his unilateral action had removed a “phony excuse for restrictions.”
When he mentioned climate policy, he condescendingly poured it on even thicker: “I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists…Well, I’m not a scientist either. But you know what – I know a lot of really good scientists…”
It was as though November never happened.
The comparison between Obama’s approach and Clinton’s is telling. Clinton faced smaller Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate than Obama does now and had gone through a far more contentious preceding year. From his first term peak, Obama has lost an astounding 69 House and 14 Senate seats. Still, it was Clinton who took the more compromising approach, which also proved successful for him.
Someone seeking cooperation does not predetermine conflict, but Obama did repeatedly, both in the topics he chose to raise and in the policies he chose to address them. His tone and message were clear: Congress is not a coequal branch of government. Only be acceding to his priorities and his way of addressing them would Congress become so. First, they must raise themselves to his level.
It is not surprising that Obama will find few takers on such terms. And it will be even less surprising when he blames the resulting failures on others.
It is not as though the country does not have its problems, despite the fact that these were glossed over in Obama’s speech. And it is not as though none of these problems offers some common ground between the parties. Yet, Obama explored neither.
This speech was not about moving America forward. It was not about current politics or, as many have claimed, about 2016. This speech was about Obama. As we look now to the end of Obama’s presidency – as his speech last week hastened America to do – it becomes increasingly clear that this is what Obama’s presidency has always been about.