President Barack Obama spoke for 65 minutes Tuesday night but didn’t say much.
State of the Union addresses typically are laundry lists of a president’s alleged accomplishments and of his legislative goals for the coming year.
It’s difficult for even the most gifted speechwriters to turn laundry lists into spellbinding oratory. But this was “the most plodding, enervated and pointless national address of his presidency,” wrote John Podhoretz in the New York Post. Maybe presidents should stop delivering the SOTU in person, mused Todd Purdum in the liberal webzine Politico.
Mr. Obama’s laundry lists Tuesday had a familiar ring. All his proposals were cribbed from the 2013 State of the Union, noted Jonathan Tobin of Commentary magazine.
They were “picayune” — “high-tech hubs, broadband access for kids, the minimum wage,” said Rich Lowry of National Review.
“Is that all there is?” asked Ron Fournier of the National Journal.
“Gone is the lyricism for which liberals swooned in 2008 and to a lesser extent in 2012,” said Washington Post Right Turn blogger Jennifer Rubin. “In its place are a list of half-measures and forced anecdotes about Obamacare.”
The president touched on liberal hot buttons such as gun control and income inequality, but his touch was perfunctory. This was the most startling passage in the SOTU:
“Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by, let alone to get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.”
The president spoke no truer words all night. The percentage of Americans living in poverty is higher than it was in 1966, the year after the war on poverty began, and 6.6 percent of Americans earn incomes of half the poverty level or less, compared to 3.7 percent when the Census Bureau began keeping this statistic in 1975.
Median household income, adjusted for inflation, fell 4.3 percent between 2009 and 2012.
The unemployment rate has been higher during this presidency than in any other since the Great Depression. If the labor force participation rate were the same now as it was in January 2009, the unemployment rate would be nearly 11 percent.
Acknowledging this amounts to “self incrimination,” said former George W. Bush aide Peter Wehner. Andrew Malcolm of Investors Business Daily called it “a stunning and inexplicably stupid admission of his own failure.”
Mr. Obama slathered lipstick on the pig, acting as if someone else has been president for the last five years, making enough spurious claims about “recovery” and Obamacare to keep fact checkers working overtime.
Mr. Obama went “small ball” and softened his rhetoric because he recognizes the grandiose initiatives that warm the hearts of liberals are unpopular, said Noah Rothman of Mediaite.
If that’s so, the light dawned in the White House very recently.
“The entire speech seemed like a cut and paste of old State of the Union speeches with a late rewrite, as if the White House figured out that ‘opportunity’; (the GOP term) polls better than ‘inequality’ (the base’s favorite),” Ms. Rubin said.
After shrinking during the presidency of George W. Bush, income inequality has increased on Mr. Obama’s watch. Only 4 percent of respondents in a Gallup poll this month think it’s the most important problem; only 13 percent in a Fox News poll think the government should do something about it. So soft pedaling the “income inequality shtick” was prudent.
But his small ball, recycled initiatives — he even plagiarized lines from Mr. Bush’s 2007 SOTU, according to former Bush speechwriter Mark Thiessen — are an implicit admission of failure. They’ll do next to nothing to alleviate the hardship that’s been caused, in large part, by his policies. They may make things worse.
Americans understand this. “Do you approve of the policies President Obama presented in his State of the Union speech?” asked the San Diego Union Tribune in an online poll to which anyone could respond. Seventy five percent of those who did said no.
This SOTU drew the smallest audience in decades. The reaction to it of an unaffiliated voter in Colorado illustrates why gimmicks and a change in rhetoric won’t stop the president’s slide into political irrelevance.
“He was talking about me but has no ability to help me,” Scott Valenti told the Associated Press. “I need a job now.”
Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1476).