Jacob Heilbrunn

The State of Barack Obama's Presidency

President Obama delivered the State of the Union address, but it wasn't really about the union's state. Instead, it was about the state of his presidency, which was not good going into last night and isn't really much better coming out of it. The aloof, austere Obama was gone, at least for the moment. He spoke with passion and authority, but the discrepancy between his rhetoric and actual aspirations was patent. He isn't in danger of a shrinking presidency. It's already shrunk.

What little Obama had to say about foreign affairs was sensible. Obama wants to engage in withdrawal--withdrawal from Afghanistan as well as Congress. It was good to hear Obama say that he wants to get America off of a "permanent war footing" and that he would veto a foolhardy congressional attempt to up sanctions on Iran. Not that this deterred a reliable source of nonsense, Senator Lindsey Graham. Graham, a champion of new sanctions, responded that Obama got it all wrong: the world is "literally about to blow up" and that "I would say that trying to free people from the bonds of al Qaeda is a good thing. That going into Afghanistan is a good thing. Taking Saddam Hussein out is a good thing. Trying to get people get on their feet and elect their government is a good thing." (Seeing Graham go down in his next election attempt would be a good thing too. Let's hope that the people of South Carolina get on their feet and vote this dud out of office.)

The focus of Obama's speech was, of course, the economy. Some Republicans are acting as though Obama's pledge to carry out actions by executive fiat constitutes a constitutional coup. Senator Ted Cruz, for example, complains about the "imperial presidency of Barack Obama" in the Wall Street Journal. This line of argument would be more convincing if Obama were actually embarked on some grand initiatives. But he isn't. Stymied by Congress, he has retreated to a bunch of small proposals.

No doubt Obama declared that he is offering a "set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class." As Dana Milbank observes, "that sounded ambitious. But the first item he cited after that was the first lady's anti-obesity initiative." The only kind of ladder Obama offered, in other words, was a stepladder. Another piddling proposal was raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10--a promise so vague that the White  House apparently won't specify how many workers would even be affected by it in future contracts. This is the Obama that surfaced in his lengthy interview with David Remnick, where he mused abstractly about whether his star power had dwindled. He sounded like someone who was checking out of his own presidency before it had even ended--three years early. Far from being an imperialist, Obama is downsizing the presidency.

At the same time, Republicans began roadtesting their own messages for 2016. Cathy McMorris Rodgers gave the official response, one filled with bromides. Tougher ones came from Senator Mike Lee and, not least, Senator Rand Paul. Paul, who visited Detroit in December, offered a Reaganesque message of lower taxes.

But it's hard not to wonder if the responses were pointless. As the New York Times pointed out, much of the real action was taking place on Twitter--"Democrats and Republicans," we are told, "competed to make their views the majority, often with little regard to what the president actually said." To pay attention to what a political leader is saying, in other words, is so yesterday.

So the State of the Union, like America's credit rating, has become downgraded. Perhaps it wouldn't have made any difference if Obama truly had delivered a substantive speech. Would anyone be able to tell the difference?