White House

Good Speech, Modest Agenda, Diminished Leader

Americans may have already tuned out Barack Obama.

President Barack Obama smiles as he arrives to deliver his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill on January 28, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
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Ron Fournier
Jan. 28, 2014, 5:02 p.m.

Is that all there is?

In what may be his last, best chance to re­vive a pres­id­ency that has fallen far short of its prom­ise, Barack Obama un­veiled his 2014 agenda Tues­day night: small-bore ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders, stud­ies, sum­mits, and le­gis­la­tion, long-seasoned and stalled. “Amer­ica does not stand still,” he said, “and neither will I.” 

He fo­cused on the era’s sem­in­al is­sue, loss of so­cial mo­bil­ity and in­come equal­ity in a post-in­dus­tri­al, glob­al eco­nomy. “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 get ahead,” Obama said to a joint ses­sion of Con­gress at­tend­ing his an­nu­al State of the Uni­on ad­dress.

An­oth­er cold, hard fact: Obama may not have the skill, the will, or the time to do much about it.

It was a good speech about a mod­est agenda de­livered by a di­min­ished lead­er, a man who fam­ously prom­ised to re­ject the polit­ics of “small things” and aim big — to change the cul­ture of Wash­ing­ton, to re­store the pub­lic’s faith in gov­ern­ment, and to tackle en­dur­ing na­tion­al prob­lems with bold solu­tions. The night he sealed the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion in 2008, can­did­ate Obama looked for­ward to a day when fu­ture gen­er­a­tions might say “this was the mo­ment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our plan­et began to heal.”

Tues­day night was no such mo­ment.

It was, in­stead, a mo­ment in mini­ature: an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der to raise the min­im­um wage for fu­ture fed­er­al con­tract­ors, and an­oth­er to cre­ate “starter” re­tire­ment ac­counts; sum­mits on long-term un­em­ploy­ment and work­ing fam­il­ies; and scores of prom­ises to “con­tin­ue” ex­ist­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­grams.

“What I of­fer to­night,” he said, “is a set of con­crete, prac­tic­al pro­pos­als.” Oh, such a far cry from “an au­da­city to hope.”

It all echoed Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s 1996 reelec­tion cam­paign strategy to pack­age scores of mi­cro ini­ti­at­ives, a cyn­ic­al but suc­cess­ful at­tempt to make the sum look big­ger than its parts.  

Be­fore the speech, White House of­fi­cials made a big deal of the ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders, sug­gest­ing that an em­boldened Obama would no longer let House Re­pub­lic­ans hold up his agenda. The truth is they still can. With rare ex­cep­tions, noth­ing im­port­ant or dur­able oc­curs in Wash­ing­ton without bi­par­tis­an con­gres­sion­al ac­tion. Obama re­it­er­ated his plea for le­gis­lat­ive ac­tion on im­mig­ra­tion, tax re­form, in­fra­struc­ture, the na­tion­al min­im­um wage, and ex­pand­ing ac­cess to pre-school. He de­fen­ded Obama­care.

The center­piece of last year’s speech, a push for gun-safety le­gis­la­tion, was re­duced to one passing para­graph, with noth­ing ac­com­plished. It was a speech without an en­dur­ing new policy or idea.

Obama seems to have sur­rendered to the lim­its of his most-power­ful of­fice. While giv­ing lip ser­vice to uni­lat­er­al ac­tion, con­gres­sion­al out­reach, and mo­bil­iz­ing the pub­lic, Obama doesn’t seem to have faith in any of these cus­tom­ary tools of pres­id­en­tial lead­er­ship. He ob­sesses over GOP re­cal­cit­rance and oth­er “struc­tur­al in­sti­tu­tion­al real­it­ies,” a phrase he trot­ted out for The New York­er’s Dav­id Rem­nick, a sym­path­et­ic bio­graph­er. Rather than fight for a spot on Mount Rush­more, or at least his own chapter in his­tory books, Obama seems con­tent to “just try to get our para­graph right.”

He also told Rem­nick that people are look­ing for “oth­er fla­vors … some­body else out there who can give me that spark of in­spir­a­tion or ex­cite­ment.” He’s right, and you had to won­der dur­ing the State of the Uni­on ad­dress wheth­er Obama’s time had passed … wheth­er even a great ad­dress could move the needle … wheth­er they’ve tuned him out.

Last year, Obama struggled through a series of con­tro­ver­sies that raised ques­tions about his com­pet­ence and cred­ib­il­ity, fol­lowed by the in­ex­plic­ably poor launch of his sig­na­ture health in­sur­ance pro­gram.

Ac­cord­ing to a new NBC News-Wall Street Journ­al poll, Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing is an an­em­ic 43 per­cent. Just 40 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans say they are either “op­tim­ist­ic and con­fid­ent” or “sat­is­fied and hope­ful” about Obama’s re­main­ing time in of­fice, versus 59 per­cent who are either “un­cer­tain and won­der­ing” or “pess­im­ist­ic and wor­ried.”  

A new Wash­ing­ton Post-ABC News poll showed that 63 per­cent of the pub­lic has no con­fid­ence in Obama to make the right de­cisions for the coun­try’s fu­ture. The coun­try is evenly di­vided over wheth­er he is hon­est, a big drop from pre-2013 levels, while 52 per­cent said he does not “un­der­stand the prob­lems of people like you.”

A ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans say their pres­id­ent is a weak lead­er.

The pub­lic is in no mood to listen to any­body in Wash­ing­ton. Ac­cord­ing to the NBC-WSJ poll, 63 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans be­lieve the coun­try is headed in the wrong dir­ec­tion; 71 per­cent aren’t sat­is­fied with the eco­nomy; and Con­gress’ ap­prov­al rat­ing is a mere 13 per­cent.

When re­spond­ents were asked for one or two words to de­scribe the state of the na­tion, the top an­swers were “di­vided” (37 per­cent), “troubled” (23 per­cent), and “de­teri­or­at­ing” (21 per­cent).

As he’s al­ways done, Obama spoke elo­quently on the top­ic. “For sev­er­al years now,” he said, “this town has been con­sumed by a rancor­ous ar­gu­ment over the prop­er size of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.” But he has been un­able to quiet, let alone con­quer, the ran­cor.

To be fair, the Re­pub­lic­an Party is largely to blame. Its lead­er­ship is weak and the House caucus is in­creas­ingly, stridently con­ser­vat­ive. A meas­ure of the GOP’s di­vi­sions played out after Obama’s speech, when four sep­ar­ate Re­pub­lic­an “re­sponses” were fea­tured.

More num­bers: Of the 41 ini­ti­at­ives Obama put be­fore Con­gress a year ago, only two were en­acted — a once-routine bill to raise the debt lim­it and a meas­ure ad­dress­ing vi­ol­ence against wo­men.

Can the pres­id­ent and the GOP House do bet­ter this year? Or is this all there is? This was the last State of the Uni­on ad­dress be­fore elec­tions in Novem­ber and 2016 largely over­shad­ow Obama and his agenda.

Words are no longer enough. “Fol­low-up and build­ing some kind of mo­mentum off of spe­cif­ic acts will mean more in the long run,” said Bill Clin­ton’s former press sec­ret­ary, Mike Mc­Curry, be­fore the ad­dress, which he thought would al­low Obama to “re­mind people they were once hope­ful and have reas­on to hope again.”

Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ive Chris Le­hane, an­oth­er vet­er­an of the Clin­ton White House, said, “It will re­quire dis­cip­lined ex­e­cu­tion to suc­ceed.”

That’s the prob­lem: Obama has not ex­ecuted; he has not found a way to over­come his era’s obstacles and ful­fill his po­ten­tial for great­ness. It may be too late to learn how.


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