In a speech that signaled his intention to “start anew,” perhaps the most notable feature of President Obama’s first-ever State of the Union address was how remarkably stale it sounded.
Against the backdrop of plummeting poll ratings and the election of a Republican Senator in Democrat-friendly Massachusetts – an unmistakable message about the broad unpopularity of the policies supported by the administration and its allies in the Democratic Congress – President Obama last night hewed to a partisan playbook that can only be described as business as usual. From economically ruinous “cap-and-trade” legislation, to the widely disliked health care “reform” package, to specious left-wing nostrums like “equal pay for equal work,” the president pledged to work for a sharply ideological agenda that would have pleased the Democratic base even as it would have disappointed those who took seriously his repeated appeals to bipartisanship.
Obama began with the confession that he has “never been more hopeful about America’s future than I am tonight.” America has a more skeptical view. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported this week that the current 10 percent unemployment rate is no closer to receding in the near term. Add to that a runaway national debt expected to triple to $22 trillion over the next decade, much of it caused by government spending, and it’s not surprising that Americans are dissatisfied with the administration’s stewardship of the economy.
The president did little to boost their confidence. Obama’s assurance that his administration’s policies – namely, the $787 billion stimulus package – have saved two million jobs from being lost is by definition impossible to corroborate. Easier to measure is the stimulus’s effect on hiring: Economists agree that it has created no jobs. Unsurprisingly, in touting the economic benefits of stimulus spending, Obama cited only jobs in the public sector. Given how little the administration has done to encourage hiring in the private sector, the president’s self-serving claim to have averted an economic disaster and saved the country from a “second Depression” was difficult to credit.
No more credible was the president’s promise to trim the country’s swelling debt. In keeping with a proposal floated earlier in the week, Obama called for a freeze on some discretionary spending programs. That this spendthrift administration is prepared accept some fiscal belt-tightening is of course a welcome development. But critics have been quick to note that the proposed cuts will be the equivalent of a drop in the ocean – especially since the costliest government programs – including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security – would be unaffected by the freeze.
Equally unfortunate was the president’s penchant, once again on display, for caricaturing and distorting the arguments of his political opponents. While Republicans like Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan have offered innovative solutions for reforming high-cost government programs and restraining government spending, the president simply repeated his standard jibe that the GOP is “just saying no to everything” and offering no proposals of their own. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, himself a beneficiary of the populist backlash against the administration, paid a modest compliment to the intelligence of the American people and performed a legitimate public service when he used his rebuttal to call attention to the website of Republican policy proposals. Indeed, McDonnell’s response was a textbook example of the kind of respectful and genuinely conciliatory tone that the president seems to endorse only in theory.
Obama missed his biggest opportunity to forge a political middle ground when he discussed national security. By significant margins, the American public favors more assertive counterterrorism measures. To that end, the administration could do much for American security, and its own political fortunes, if it supported the use of harsher interrogation techniques on terrorists like would-be Christmas bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and abandoned its plans to stage civilian trials for high-level jihadists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The latter would not even be a particularly dramatic compromise, since the administration has already allowed for terrorist trials to continue in the military commissions system.
Instead, the president used his speech to denounce coercive interrogation techniques as “torture,” while chiding critics for presenting a “false choice” between defending national security and upholding the country’s values. Yet such tradeoffs arise all the time. The latest example would be underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Interrogated for just 50 minutes before being passed into police custody, he seems to have revealed little about terrorist operations abroad as a result. That such incidents have been allowed to occur on Obama’s watch inspires little confidence in the president’s claim that his administration is doing “what it takes to defend our nation.”
Unusually for Obama’s scripted speeches, the State of the Union showed a spectacular lack of self-awareness. Concluding his remarks, the president lamented that Americans have lost faith in the country’s institutions, not least the government itself. It was a statement as politically tone deaf as Obama’s recent claim that “the same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office.” In fact, Brown was elected on the strength of an electoral insurgency against the administration and its domestic policy agenda. As he puzzles over Americans’ growing skepticism of big government, the president seems not to recognize that he is the change they seek.