Historically, State of the Union speeches leave no trace. Their impact on presidential approval ratings is nil. Their utility, therefore, is in what they reflect about the presidential character and the presidential course. Last night President Obama gave a speech that was at times quite eloquent, and on occasion rhetorically empty. But at all times it was the speech of a man who is deeply partisan and dangerously arrogant and is determined to stay a course which has already damaged his party, weakened his country at home and exposed it to attack from abroad.
Over and over again the President demonstrated a troubling disconnect from reality, striking in the leader of a political democracy, and indicative of a narcissism that appears to be greater than President Clinton’s. “I have never been more hopeful about America’s future than I am tonight,” he said at the outset of his speech. This in a country with 17 million unemployed, a political majority that is unable to govern, and a national security apparatus that couldn’t identify a terrorist whose own father had turned him in.
In the course of his speech, as Charles Krauthammer observed, the President attacked “Washington” seven times in the name of the people, as though he and his party were not Washington, as though the course he had set for his party and his country was not the source of the people’s rage. Taken as a whole it was an hour-long campaign speech, in which he broke precedent to attack not only the previous Republican Administration and all the Republicans in the chamber but even the Supreme Court justices present as well. And then – as though he had not done that – he scolded the entire assemblage for being politicians instead of non-partisan statesmen, and for running “permanent campaigns.”
But the most disturbing passage of his speech was also the most eloquent, the peroration at the end. In this flourish as throughout his speech there was the world and then there was Obama. In the world “Each time a CEO rewards himself for failure … people’s doubts grow.” But in the mind of Obama, no failure is his. If voters have rejected his plans for the future that is their deficiency not his. “I campaigned on the promise of change … But remember this … I never suggested that change would be easy.” The cowardice and weakness of his own party and the voters who have deserted him are to blame. And they have betrayed not only him but through him the Republic itself. “If people had made that decision 50 years ago, or 100 years ago or 200 years ago we wouldn’t be here tonight. The only reason we are here is because generations of Americans were unafraid to do what was hard; to do what was needed even when success was uncertain.” L’etat c’est moi.
The philosopher Martin Buber once wrote: “Woe to the people whose leader has no teacher.” In a democracy, the people must function as their leader’s teacher. But Obama has no faith in the American people, and in particular the people who supported him. And therefore there will be no correction of the destructive – and self-destructive — course he has undertaken.