When President Bill Clinton faced Congress in 1995, after first losing any hope of health care reform and then control of Congress, he used his State of the Union speech to declare, "The era of big government is over." President Obama's State of the Union speech last night only served to remind us that the era of big speeches is over.
As America struggles with a 10 percent unemployment rate, stubbornly refusing to go down even as other economic numbers seem to rise, the public will no longer believe in speeches — only in results. As Cuba Gooding Jr. says to Tom Cruise in "Jerry Maguire," Americans are saying, "Show me the money."
In this sense, the Obama administration is remarkably similar to that of George W. Bush: There's no hope of overcoming the president's political problems by speeches, spin or posturing. It'll take results.
As long as the body count rose in Iraq, nothing Bush said mattered much. And as long as the "body count" of un- and under-employed workers remains hovering over 20 percent, the American people won't be moved by presidential speeches or even actions. Only results will matter.
Obama's proposals to address the deficit, which is what is prolonging the recession, were ludicrous. None takes effect until next year. And, even when they do, they will only trim the deficit by 3 percent.
The very notion of a "jobs package" that underpins Obama's newly announced program is oxymoronic. The president still seems not to have grasped the essential point that borrowing money to spend it to create jobs in fact costs jobs. Or that increasing the deficit decreases the opportunities for businesses and consumers to borrow and cuts the number of jobs.
Ultimately, the fate of the Obama presidency depends on whether he is right or his conservative critics are. If he's correct, more spending will bring down unemployment and put people to work. If he's wrong, the deficit that results from his spending will keep joblessness high.
A lot of last night's speech was, in effect, an apology for his own policies.
His lamentation of partisanship and division, his appeals for unity — it all seemed almost to disregard his own record of polarization.
His allusion to the deficit "in which we find ourselves" was disingenuousness — at best. He has to hope that nobody was reading the newspaper as he proposed a stimulus package costing nearly $800 billion.
When he seemed at a loss, he lapsed into easy, populist applause lines — almost a parody of partisanship. His campaign speech, dressed up as a State of the Union, seemed irrelevant to the economic experience of our past year.
Even his forays into patriotism ("I do not accept second place for the United States of America") sounded like a return to his rhetoric of the campaign — irrelevant to our current situation.
His threat to "send back" to Congress any regulatory reform that does not meet his specifications was reminiscent of Clinton's threat — as he brandished a pen — to veto any health care reform that didn't seem sufficient. The fact is that Congress isn't about to vote to give him the power to seize any corporation that he deems is "too big to fail" and "potentially insolvent." His threat to veto is irrelevant.
The most attractive of his proposals — and the one with the greatest potential political payoff — was his proposal to offer a $10,000-a-year tax credit for college tuition. His accompanying suggestion that student-loan payments be capped at 10 percent of a graduate's income and that the debt be extinguished after 20 years (10 if he or she works in public service) also does him proud.
But even as Obama stumbled in embracing spending as the cure for joblessness, he failed even more in his comments about the War on Terror. Accumulating evidence is leading independents to demand that terror trials be handled by the military, not the civilian, justice system — and without Miranda warnings.
Getting intelligence about the next attack has a priority over criminal prosecution in the minds of all Americans ... except perhaps those of the attorney general and the president.