If you skipped President Obama's State of the Union address on TV last week, you missed something. It was long (61 minutes) and uninspiring. Yet as the Obama presidency enters its seventh year, the speech was revealing. Here are a few things we learned about Obama's thinking.
• Words speak louder than actions. From what the president said, you might have concluded Russia had retreated inside its borders, its tail between its legs. "We are demonstrating the power of American strength and diplomacy," he said. "We're upholding the principle that bigger nations can't bully the smallby opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine's democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies." The result: Russia is now "isolated, with its economy in tatters."
America led "not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve," Obama said. But the nonbluster approachwordshasn't impressed Russian president Vladimir Putin. Russia's annexation of Crimea stands, as does its control of much of eastern Ukraine and its ambition for further expansion. The Russian economy is weakened, true, but it's because the price of oil has plummeted, not because Obama has upheld a principle.
Meanwhile, Obama claimed America has "stopped" the Islamic terrorist group ISIL in its tracks. Not in Syria, it hasn't. The next step, he said, is for Congress "to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL." But a resolution won't defeat ISIL. Only the actual use of more military force will.
• Republican ideas are solicited and dropped. "I commit to every Republican here tonight that I will not only seek out your ideas, I will seek to work with you to make this country stronger," Obama declared. Given his record, eyes must have rolled across the House chamber. He's often promised to consider GOP ideas and followed up by ignoring them.
Three days after his inauguration in January 2009, he met with congressional leaders. Eric Cantor, then the House Republican whip, gave Obama a list of modest proposals to help revive the economy. The president responded by saying "elections have consequences" and "I won." There's no evidence he gave the ideas a moment's consideration. A week or so later, Obama spoke to House Republicans on Capitol Hill, soliciting their ideas for a bill to stimulate the economy. It turned out the legislation had already been drafted by Democrats, with no Republican input.
A year later, Obama spoke to a House Republican retreat in Baltimore and took questions. The first came from Paul Ryan, a rising Republican star and author of a "road map" on taxes and spending. Obama said he'd read it and liked some of Ryan's ideas. Ryan took this as "an olive branch," he recalled in his book The Way Forward. "Unfortunately, within 72 hours, his budget director took that branch and hit me in the face with it," Ryan wrote. That was followed by attacks from House Democrats in a conference call and from Nancy Pelosi in a speech. "They apparently saw my budget plan as a critical weapon in their 2010 midterm campaign strategy," he wrote.
• Forget compromise. The few compromises between Republicans and the Obama White House were negotiated by Vice President Biden. The president himself is a poor negotiator, according to Republicans. He lectures and is petulant and reluctant to make concessions. Yet he now says he wants to negotiate deals on tax reform, infrastructure, and trade.
After the State of the Union, scratch tax reform. Republicans envision it based on the 1986 bipartisan model in which loopholes and special breaks were killed, the tax base broadened, and tax rates lowered. We learned in Obama's speech that his concept is from another world. Yes, he wants to wipe out loopholes and preferences, but not to cut rates, at least for individuals. He wants to spend the money that's saved, especially to fund infrastructure. And he's also eager to exploit tax reform to raise taxes on the rich and redistribute their wealth. "Let's close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top one percent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth," Obama said. His ideas aren't new. They're hardy perennials of liberals. They've just never been part of tax reform. A bipartisan deal on tax reform was always a long shot in Obama's final two years. Now it's dead, thanks to the president.
• High-flown sentiments are empty. Let's stipulate that the political class is no stranger to hypocrisy. But Obama's hypocrisy is unique and spectacular. His calling card as a presidential candidate was that he alone knew how to bring Washington together, to end polarization, cure dysfunction, and produce a new era of bipartisanship. It was an appealing pitch. But once in the White House, he emerged as the Great Divider, pulling Americans apart on class, race, gender, and political party.
So when Obama wound up his speech last week by posing as the last, lonely believer in America as "one nation," it was surprising. He must have been aiming those remarks at the television audience, because everyone in the hall knew his record. He called for "a better politics." It's "one where we debate without demonizing each other," he said. Did he forget what his 2012 campaign did to Mitt Romney? "A better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter," he went on. What about his own campaign?
• The driver of our national debt goes unmentioned. The phrase "entitlement reform" didn't find its way into the speech. Earlier in his presidency, he had emphasized the threat to the economy and to the solvency of the federal government from uncontrolled entitlement spending. President Clinton paid enormous attention to curbing entitlements until he was sidetracked by impeachment. For now, Obama has left the issue to Republicans. And it's not because the problem has lessened. It's because the Democratic base opposes entitlement reform. Not very presidential on his part, wouldn't you say?