On President Obama’s State of the Union address

Candidate Obama is back. In his State of the Union address, he was more forceful, eloquent and shrewdly misdirecting than he has been since 2008.

In the history of the American political cycles, President/candidate Obama may have more successfully evaded accountability for a failed economy than any president in history. Perhaps we should finally acknowledge as a nation that a president cannot work magic on an economy. Perhaps we should finally grant to this president, for the first time in American history, a pass for an abysmal economy and kudos for good intentions. Perhaps we should, for the first time in American history, give a sitting president credit for the excuse that it would have been a lot worse.

I admire much of what the president said. I love his eloquence. I admire particularly the very shrewd focus on all that can be done. But I wonder where the leadership to do all of those things was when it mattered. President Obama had enormous political capital in his first two years and chose to squander it on health care reform, without even exercising genuine leadership in that raucous debate and deliberately capitulating to the congressional circus for all of the particulars of that misbegotten bill. All of these wonderful ideas to stimulate the economy, retrain America, get rid of bad teachers, help businesses upgrade their plants, stop illegal immigration (by means other than there being no jobs in America for illegal immigrants to cross the border for), get jobs for veterans — if he was serious about these ideas, he’d have proposed them in 2009. He didn’t. He pursued health care reform.

And health care reform has been a palpable drag on the economy. And so we have a president running on great ideas for America who didn’t actively pursue them when he could, and instead pursued, sort of, health care reform, to the detriment of the economy, with an abysmal economy, saying “vote for me” (and, by the way, conveniently never mentioning health care reform).

But lots of bold ideas. How many times did the president say in his SOTU address send me a bill and I will sign it? That is preposterous. His time to say that was two years ago if he was a leader. Saying it only now is cynical. He knows it won’t happen. And that’s why he’s proposing it now instead of two years ago when it might have been viable. That is a deeply cynical presidency trying to do something no incumbent has ever achieved before with such a bad economy: evade accountability for a terrible economy.

I don’t think Barack Obama is a bad president. Like every president, he has priorities. I question his priorities. But I credit some of them — like getting Osama bin Laden (truly, kudos Mr. President), like taking out much of the al Qaeda leadership, like realistically keeping open Guantanamo, like insisting that “America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs” and he intends to keep it that way as long as he is president. In short, I like some of President Obama’s foreign policy because it is George W. Bush’s foreign policy against which he campaigned vociferously. I like that mature transformation of Barack Obama. I feel safer because President Obama is actually doing what President Bush did (notwithstanding the rhetoric of apology and capitulation that were words only and not deeds).

I just don’t like Barack Obama for what he was in 2008 geopolitically (and now chastened) or what he is in 2012 domestically. It’s still, for candidate Obama, about “fairshareism.” As if President Obama and members of Congress “paying their fair share” would put the slightest dent in the deficit. What a grandiose gesture — please tax me and members of Congress more! — and what a useless and transparently cynical sop that has nothing whatever to do with the deficit. Simply taxing rich people would do virtually nothing to reduce the deficit. Yet virtually no rich person in America would object to higher taxes if it were coupled with serious deficit reduction measures.

That’s a failure of presidential leadership.

And this is what candidate/President Obama poses for America: the rich aren’t paying their “fair share,” and that’s the conversation we need to have as a nation, and that’s his campaign mantra. Damn the rich, like me, he says coyly. That’s a serious shame because that squanders an opportunity to institute deep deficit reduction measures, coupled with sensible tax increases, and fiscal measures that promise financial health for America.

None of that matters if making rich people bad people makes for a good talking point. Like “the Buffett Rule.” Camera to Warren Buffett’s “secretary.” Can’t have Warren Buffet’s “secretary” paying more in taxes than Warren Buffett. First, she doesn’t. Not even close. Second, her income tax rate is higher than his capital gains tax rate (but not his income tax rate) because Congress treats capital gains and dividend income differently than income, and for a reason. Third, reasonable minds can differ on what the rate for income tax, capital gains tax, and dividends tax should be, but it is silly to compare the tax on Warren Buffett and Warren Buffett’s secretary. It’s comparing different taxes. But the president knew this.

This is a president digging out of a hole that may not matter. Watching Gingrich and Romney duke it out, this president may very well get a pass. He already knows he has a leg up because any challenge to him is wounded. Barack Obama is looking like the superior candidate. No Republican can challenge him, thanks to the circular firing squad. And there are so many reasons why challenging President Obama matters.



13 Responses to On President Obama’s State of the Union address

  1. FrechPhew says:

    Excellent, had a bellyfull of the rich are evil pulp. And what I dislike even worse is the lack of integrity it takes to smear it around when it is nothing more than a hot button to hit on. So, next time I speak at a Chuck-E-Cheese event, I will hit the homework is evil button a few times to get them on my side.

    Good point about his foreign policy – interesting how Obama has done a decent job in that arena, and it was the area I was the most worried about. And, I do agree with the above on the W having something to do with that.

  2. Jeff says:

    Well, I can’t leave it alone. ” President/candidate Obama may have more successfully evaded accountability for a failed economy than any president in history.” You might have heard of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Great Depression. I think he might have been “given a pass.” but if you say Obama is the only one, okay. The reason President Obama will be reelected has little to do with a circulular firing squad (though this is highly entertaining) it’s because no decent Republican can look the mirror in the eye and not know they were a huge part of the problem when and why things fell apart and understands the party has no ideas and no candidates. Every knowledgable economist, politician, or pundit said at the time of the collapse that it would take years to climb out of the hole. Barrack Obama over-promised, over-sold, miscalculated the difficulty of the problems and the unreasonable opposition which opposed even their own ideas when it meant STOPPING OBAMA, yet, by your own admission,the President has delivered a whole more than health care and we are finding our way back on track.

    • Gosh dang Jeff, thanks. I googled “Franklin D. Roosevelt” and “the Great Depression.” Wow. Come on pal, in his first hundred days in office, FDR spearheaded substantial legislation (the “New Deal”) — exercising substantial presidential leadership in the process — and some of it was good policy and some of it wasn’t, but it was substantial presidential leadership. And, by the way, the economy rebounded initially — at a time when presidential tools for influencing the economy were far fewer than they are now. When it caved again, in his second term, he was on his way to becoming a war-time president in the greatest conflagration of the 20th century. FDR didn’t get a “pass.” He exercised enormous leadership — and reasonable minds can and do differ about the wisdom of what he did and tried to do, but no one doubts the magnitude of his leadership. Not even President Obama, who characterized himself with spectacular chutzpah as the 4th best president, behind LBJ, FDR and Lincoln, would presume to compare himself to FDR. And President Obama has not been a genuine leader, however much he wishes to preen, and however earnest and eager his supporters are to make his case. And by the way, LBJ, FDR, and Lincoln faced substantially greater political and ideological opposition than Barack Obama. One of them was murdered. Good heavens, even Bill Clinton faced greater political and ideological opposition than Barack Obama. Substantially greater. The Republicans regained control of the House in 1994 for the first time in decades. The opposition was vastly intense. Clinton was impeached, for heaven’s sake. Clinton nevertheless managed to exercise leadership, triangulate, and get some things done that secured his reelection. No comparison. Barack Obama may well be the beneficiary of the Republican party’s disarray, but he will be the weakest leader winning reelection, perhaps ever.

  3. Terrance H. says:


    I find myself agreeing with much of what you said. It certainly does seem silly that President Obama is calling for legislation so close to reelection that he should have been calling for all along, knowing well it’s not going to happen. But then again, it’s all – what do you call it? – political theater.

    The speech was clearly written to kickoff his reelection campaign. I don’t have any delusions about that at all. I’m disappointed that Obama wasted, as you say, all his political capital on a healthcare bill that still centers American health care around maximizing insurance company profit rather than patient care. Obamacare is useless, as far as I’m concerned. It does some good things, but not enough.

    All the rhetoric about closing loopholes and companies paying more in taxes sounds good generally, but ridiculous coming from a man who has such close ties to companies who didn’t pay their taxes.

    I wish Obama would have faced a primary challenger.

    • Thanks Terrance. It might have been healthy to have a primary challenger — but neither party has any history of mounting primary challenges against incumbents. The last time it was a serious threat — against Lyndon Johnson — the incumbent decided not to run for re-election. The advantages of the incumbency are massive, and both parties tend to prefer power over purity or principle.

  4. Jeff says:

    Much consternation here over this all he did was health care / wasted political capital theme:

    Passing stimulus, generating jobs. On February 17, 2009, Obama signed the $787 billion stimulus bill into law. In December 2009, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office issued a report estimating that “in the third quarter of calendar year 2009, an additional 600,000 to 1.6 million people were employed in the United States” due to that legislation. According to the White House Council of Economic Advisers, CBO has increased its estimate to 800,000 to 2.4 million additional employed through the fourth quarter of that year. Moreover, a November 20, 2009, New York Times article reported that the “consensus” among “dispassionate analysts” is that “the stimulus package, messy as it is, is working,” citing nonpartisan analyses of gross domestic product and total employment figures by several companies specializing in economic forecasting. Further, a January 25 USA Today article stated that, according to its “quarterly survey of 50 economists,” “[u]nemployment would have hit 10.8% — higher than December’s 10% rate — without Obama’s $787 billion stimulus program,” adding, “The difference would translate into another 1.2 million lost jobs.”

    Eliminating wasteful spending. Obama was able to achieve some significant cuts to wasteful spending — most notably, the elimination of the F-22 fighter jet program after he successfully lobbied the Senate to vote to strip out financing for more jets from a defense funding authorization bill. The Washington Times reported on January 14 that Obama won “60 percent of his proposed cuts” and also managed “to get Congress to ax several programs that had bedeviled President George W. Bush for years.”

    Sotomayor nomination. On May 26, 2009, Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court to replace the retiring Justice David Souter. She was confirmed by the Senate on August 6, 2009, and sworn in August 8, making her the first Hispanic justice, and only the third woman, on the court.

    Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The first bill President Obama signed into law, on January 29, 2009, was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which expands the rights of workers to sue employers over wage discrimination claims.

    SCHIP expansion. On February 5, 2009, Obama signed a bill expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) to cover 4 million more lower-income children.

    Public lands bill. On March 30, Obama signed an omnibus public lands bill, which The New York Times reported “allows for 2 million more acres to be declared wilderness… [with] more than 1,000 miles designated as scenic rivers, and adds land for national trails.”

    Credit card reform. On May 21, 2009, Obama signed into law a bill providing what USA Today called the “most sweeping changes to the credit card industry in 40 years,” adding restrictions on interest rate increases and fees and restricting the marketing of credit cards to college students.

    Transparency. The Washington Post reported that moves by the Obama administration to improve government transparency “included a ban on lobbyist gifts; restrictions on the hiring of lobbyists; publication of White House visitor logs and other records; and a move to bar lobbyists from serving on advisory boards.” A report by Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, and U.S. PIRG stated that: “The cumulative effect of the Administration’s actions has been to adopt the strongest and most comprehensive lobbying, ethics and transparency rules and policies ever established by an Administration to govern its own activities.”

    Tobacco regulation. On June 22, 2009, Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which, for the first time, gave the U.S. Food & Drug Administration the authority to regulate the manufacturing, marketing, and sale of tobacco.

    National service. On April 21, 2009, Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which expands the scope of AmeriCorps and provides opportunities for young people and senior citizens to join in service programs.

    Stem cell research. On May 9, 2009, Obama signed an executive order easing restrictions on the use of federal money for embryonic stem cell research.

    This was the first year and I know you don’t want the list for next two plus.

    • Yeah okay, this reminds me a bit of the habit of members of Congress listing among their many “accomplishments” legislation they co-sponsored (i.e., signed on to after the bill was drafted and introduced). Most of these “accomplishments” were not instances of presidential leadership, and you know this Jeff. Good heavens, several post offices got named too. In several cases, all of the hard work had already been done and the president, quite literally, had no role whatever except appending his signature to the enactment. And the Sotomayor nomination was actually his duty after Souter retired. That’s a stretch to call that an “accomplishment” in a rebuttal to a piece that laments the lack of presidential leadership until a political season — when nothing will actually get done — is upon us. When President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that was a truly presidential accomplishment. It likely would not have passed without the president’s leadership and intimate experience with legislative process. President Obama wasn’t anywhere even remotely approaching that hands-on even with health care reform — but that’s his signature “achievement.” I know you support the president, and I respect that Jeff, and you want to build his resume and inventory everything good (in your view, and that’s a separate issue) that happened during his tenure — but I don’t think it can be seriously disputed that presidential leadership has been lacking, and the concocted appearance of it now — when it will not matter except for campaigning — is a bit cynical.

  5. Jeff says:

    I plagarized that list. It came from Media Matters in 2010. True enough that some of those accomplishments are just being in the right place at the right time. I note some of them must have carried more weight than the Sotomayer nomination, since you did not respond to the stimulus, transparency of government, or the elimination of some wasteful spending.

    I don’t expect to convince anyone that President Obama will be re-elected and from a historical perspective, a few years down the road, will be appreciated as a highly effective President who stepped into the biggest mess since FDR. Considering international conflict, the President may have inherited a far more complicated state of affairs and dealt with it according to the limits of the Constitutional balance of power. Add in his lack of experience and the learning curve, he has, in my humble biased opinion, done extraordinarily well and grown to meet the challenge. He is smart, deliberative, a practical pragmatist, who appreciates a half a loaf when a whole loaf is not possible. I admire these qualities in any President. He hasn’t raised taxes like Ronald Reagan, and he hasn’t had foreign policy / military mission diasters like Jimmy Carter or any idiotic personal scandal like Bill Clinton.

    If we have not made significant progress in 4 more years, then, well, I’ll have to admit I miscalculated but it seems absolutely clear to me that a second Obama term would provide far more momentum toward progress and recovery than would a first term Presidency by any other candidate. Judging by the lack of interest in stopping the juggernaut toward disastrous socialism by a higher level of potential Republican candidates like Thune, Daniels, Bush, and Christie, one can only surmise the Obama Presidency is really not that bad for the country or that he is completely unbeatable.

    You are probably quite right about Obama’s lack of ability to strongarm the legislative branch. You call it lack of leadership but in comparing him to Johnson and the Civil Rights Act…as much as I appreciate that piece of legislation, was it leadership, or a shotgun held to the back of the head? Certainly Lyndon extorted votes where he had the leverage and bought them where necessary, to garner the necessary votes wherever he needed them. How would Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich provide that kind of political “leadership”? Remember when John Boehner bellowed “Where are the jobs?” and the 2010 election was all about jobs? Not to be cynical but if President Obama is to blame for not fixing the economy quickly enough, is there any blame for the party that has done nothing to produce a single jobs bill?

    • Where we agree: “Add in his lack of experience and the learning curve, he has, in my humble biased opinion, done extraordinarily well and grown to meet the challenge. He is smart, deliberative, a practical pragmatist, who appreciates a half a loaf when a whole loaf is not possible.” I give you that Jeff. I like the man. I think he’s sincere. He’s just not the leader the country needs right now. We need someone who truly gets governance and wants to do it and do it well.

      You’ve made a bit of a theme the fact that several Republicans declined to enter the presidential primary (though hordes did), as though that somehow means these candidates confirm the non-disaster of the Obama presidency. I don’t get that. There are multiple reasons why attractive candidates decline to enter a presidential race. Republicans tend (with exceptions) to nominate the next heir-apparent. Republicans also, in slight contrast to Democrats, tend not to nominate newbies with (so far) minimal political experience. That’s why, as exciting as Marco Rubio is (with political experience and a life story roughly equivalent to Barack Obama’s in 2007), very few Republicans have seriously suggested his candidacy for president. All of the putative candidates you mention likely opted out for one of the foregoing reasons (and, in some cases, perhaps wish they hadn’t). To be sure, Republicans view this presidency as spectacularly vulnerable — they’re just so trippy over the prospect, they can’t get their sh*t together.

  6. lobotero says:

    Kendrick, I heard nothing that I have not heard before…no matter who was president….a list of programs…education, immigration, taxes, et al…nothing new…..these SOTU’s are become nothing but lies told to fools…….

    • Not sure about “lies” or “fools,” my friend, but this SOTU address did seem to be new promises, brought suspiciously late, against a back-drop of failures.

  7. That was a nice balance of criticism and kudos. For me, I just wish he had Nancy Pelosi’s balls.

    The circular firing squad was a very fitting image. That’s the thing about primaries that is so weird. Let’s nearly tear each other apart until we have last man/woman standing. Then, we’ll all rally behind the one we spent months trashing.

  8. bronxboy55 says:

    Every president since Washington has had his predecessor to blame for the economy and whatever else happens to be ailing the country. A true leader, I suppose, would be someone who refuses to waste time even looking for a scapegoat. If only one of them could tap into their boundless energy for campaigning and channel it into getting something done.

    Great post, Kendrick.

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