Let’s for a moment posit that patriotism is not the last refuge of a scoundrel. Sometimes it’s merely the last refuge of a president determined to win reelection. So we heard Mr. Obama pouring it on in his State of the Union address, speaking of his country and its people with unabashed affection, and when on signing off he asked God to bless the United States of America he sounded as if he really meant it. Maybe he did, just as he meant it when he said America is “the light to the world” and “the best place in the world to do business.”
But then he got carried away. It was one thing to channel Ronald Reagan and warn against government incompetence and inefficiency. His favorite example: “the Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in when they’re in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.” Say what you will, but I loved that punch line (or at least I think that’s what it was — with government you never can tell).
It was another thing, though, when Mr. Obama reverted to dreary form and pledged, in the coming year, to “work to rebuild people’s faith in the institution of government.” In normal postmodern circumstances (thank you, James Bowman; p. 70), that’s an unintended laugh line. Given what happened in Washington the next day, it became a howler for the ages. As a heavy snowstorm bore down on the nation’s capital, the federal government in its wisdom released its workers two hours early; just in time, in other words, for them to hit the roads home in the thick of the storm. The result was gridlock in every conceivable direction, with people stuck in impassable traffic along impassable highways and bridges for hours and hours and hours, or about as long as it took Napoleon’s remnants to retreat from Moscow. There’s been hell to pay around here ever since. You know the great statist experiment isn’t working when government’s own work force is the first to lose “faith in the institution.”
Another SOTU attempt at humor came off as, ultimately, cowardly. “Now, I have heard rumors that a few of you still have concerns about our new health care law,” Mr. Obama quipped, betraying both his full understanding of the enormity of opposition to it and his fear of addressing the matter head on. What’s he afraid of? The Constitution? Perhaps our president will benefit from the tutorial offered this month by Seth Lipsky (p. 18). In my book, Mr. Lipsky is the one who should have been teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago.
Did you notice that during the State of the Union Mr. Obama had a near rapturous moment? “Within 25 years,” he began, “our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail.” It’s almost heartless to deprive a young president of his toy train, but that’s the unpleasant task that has fallen on Philip Klein this month (p. 38). No way high-speed rail can come about in our great country, Phil reports, even if routes are supposedly “already underway” in California and elsewhere, according to our president. And going nowhere fast, at invisible record speed.
So is our dreamy president in trouble? Given his political energy and grit, he can’t be written off. Already thanks to the Republican resurgence the country has rebounded psychologically, which can only benefit the White House occupant as well. His reaction to Tucson was certainly superior to that of his allies at the New York Times (see James Taranto, p. 24) and for once allowed him to appear as president of all the people. Finally, alas, he’ll likely be -running against a Republican who’ll prove no more difficult to knock off than John McCain and Bob Dole before him. If you don’t believe me, just ask Jim Antle (p. 12).