It’s hard to remember a presidential address with more rhetorical dissonance. In his final State of the Union, President Obama offered a hopeful vision of the future, while also expressing little interest in achieving it over the next 12 months.
Obama began the speech by paying lip service to bipartisanship and ended it by lamenting the “rancor and suspicion” that dominates Washington, pleading with the country to “fix our politics.” High notes, both.
But in between, he took a dismissive tone toward Republicans, belittling their objections to climate change, ridiculing opposition to scientific research, calling their criticisms of the economic recovery “fiction” and using business leaders as a piñata. As my colleague Francis Wilkinson wrote, “Virtually every paragraph was constructed as a contradiction of Republican dogma, Republican policy, Republican politics or Republican attitude.” For a guy who says he wants to build trust across party lines, he sure has a funny way of going about it.
Most tellingly, Obama bemoaned the lack of compromise in Washington, yet in an hourlong speech, he offered none — even though the new speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has shown an interest and ability to cut deals. The best he could offer was generic support for changing “outdated regulations” and cutting red tape, ostensibly a Republican priority, but a favorite old saw of both parties.
Obama could have focused on ideas that have bipartisan support, such as reducing mandatory minimum sentences, expanding the earned-income tax credit and passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and asked Republicans to join him in passing them. Instead, he mentioned them only briefly, or in the case of the TPP, without urging his own party to get behind it.
Instead, he spent more time touting old proposals, such as free community college for all; beating the drum for traditional Democratic priorities, such as strengthening Medicare and Social Security; and proposing new spending on energy, education, job training and scientific research — without offering even a hint of how he would pay for them.
He said his speech would focus on “the next five years, 10 years and beyond,” but he mostly reiterated his support for policies that he would adopt today, if he could convince Republicans in Congress to go along. The trouble is, he gave up on doing that a long time ago.
A year ago, after Democrats took a drubbing in the 2014 elections, he spurned the strategy that President Bill Clinton so effectively adopted after the 1994 Republican landslide: conciliation, civility and compromise. Instead, in that State of the Union, he talked over the heads of Republicans and delivered a political speech that did nothing to advance his agenda in Congress. Tuesday night’s speech was more of the same.
Of course, Republicans deserve plenty of blame for the gridlock of the past five years, but the president’s speech reflects his own failings as the leader of a divided government and his preference for wooing voters over legislators. But for the 22nd Amendment, it could have been a stump speech for a third term.
Obama is right that there are systemic factors, such as gerrymandered districts and fundraising pressures, that contribute to Washington’s political dysfunction. But the rhetorical dissonance within his speech reflects his own culpability in a problem that, as he acknowledged, has grown worse on his watch.
The next president, if he or she is interested in building the kind of bipartisan alliances that Obama still dreams of, will have to spend far more time building trust and offering compromises than Obama has done. That won’t require a Lincoln or a Roosevelt, as Obama suggested. But it will require someone who can be more than the leader of his own party.
Francis Barry was director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.