The State of the Union is typically a very populist moment. Before I get into that, I want to share something hysterical written yesterday in the New York Times. Charles Blow is avowedly liberal, and yesterday’s piece was about how disappointed he is that Obama has changed from Big Things to small ball. He concluded by quoting something Obama recently told David Remnick of The New Yorker:
‘And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.’
Blow concludes: “The president who was fond of proclaiming that under his leadership, the country was beginning a “new chapter” on everything from diplomacy to climate change, is now just trying to get his paragraph right.”
Talk about getting paragraphs right! Blow and Remnick both let “another 150 years [after Lincoln] before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality” pass without so much as a “[sic]” – the traditional journalist’s way of saying “this was an error, but that’s what he said.” 150 years since Lincoln? So…blacks didn’t get formal equality until 2015? Or are we counting from Lincoln’s 1860 election? When exactly in the Obama presidency did it happen?
I know, I know, it’s a minor thing; but it’s indicative of something. Blow thinks he’s being critical of Obama, but Republicans are the ones to whom he doesn’t give any breaks. If George W. Bush had been 50 years off on the dates of the Revolutionary War, I doubt Blow would have been so credulous as to simply repeat the New Yorker’s error without comment. And it’s not a little mistake on the same level as, say, mistyping the recipe for deviled eggs; it feeds into an unfortunate narrative that the hardcore left is always playing the victim card and that the rest of the country can never do enough for blacks. As for Remnick, he also thinks he’s being critical of Obama, and a fair reading of all 10,000 words indicates that he is, certainly by the standards of the people he works with. Yet he also lets whoppers just slide by. Another example: While discussing the war on terror, Obama “said that, if terrorists can be captured and prosecuted, ‘that’s always my preference. If we can’t, I cannot stand by and do nothing.'” Basically Obama just lobbed a fat pitch down the middle of the plate, allowing a real reporter to reply: “Uh, which terrorists, exactly, have been ‘captured and prosecuted’ in your 5-year presidency? Considering Guantanamo hasn’t taken any new prisoners, where are they?” But if Remnick did ask that, it didn’t make the piece, making the magazine he runs (The New Yorker) look more in the tank for Obama.
Where am I going with this? Well, anyone else fascinated by the recent polls that say that a majority of Americans no longer find Obama honest or trustworthy? It’s beyond “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor”; it’s Edward Snowden, it’s drones, but it’s also the obvious partisanship of sources like The New York Times and The New Yorker on one side, and The Wall Street Journal and Fox News on the other. Fox will be sending Bill O’Reilly to interview President Obama before the Super Bowl this Sunday. I’m sure we can trust O’Reilly to make his partisan points by asking his partisan questions; we can trust that he won’t ask about, say, where we’re now prosecuting newly captured terrorists, because that question doesn’t fit his worldview. Once, Obama seemed to hover above all this small-mindedness; but now that he’s missed about 100 chances to be more forthright, and now that he sounds like the half of the media that gives him a pass on it, some threshold of veracity has been passed. On some level, in the internet era, you can’t really trust anything or anyone; on another level, there are people working directly for Obama with better approval ratings. If you doubt that there’s something about the diffident Obama that’s driving people away, note that in a recent development, more people self-identify as independents than do as Democrats or Republicans.
That brings me back to the State of the Union. When I called it a populist affair, I meant that the speech generally praises ideas that common Americans, or whom I call the 51%, can agree with. Oh sure, occasionally you’ll have something like a Bush war or an Obama health care initiative that might not pass the 51% test, but the language used to sell the policy is usually like a good Justin Verlander pitch: right down the middle. As someone who’s using this space (cautiously, as an experiment), to speak for the 51%, I’m okay with that. Obama is saying mostly right things. But is he still the right person to say them?
I realize we’re stuck with him for three more years, so perhaps I should just learn to live with him as a mouthpiece. But I’m not sure that’s the best way to achieve his mostly appealing, moderate agenda. He could delegate bigger speeches and greater lobbying efforts to Michelle Obama or Joe Biden or Valerie Jarrett or – and this might really help – military commanders under his control. Or how about all the celebrities that love him? Several of them are known for giving good speeches and/or convincing people to hand over money.
Perhaps you’re thinking, well, speeches and lobbying don’t solve problems. Maybe, but that’s pretty much been Obama’s defense for five years, and I’m not sure how much that attitude has helped. When he bothers to get off his butt and give a good speech, as with race in 2008, or with gay marriage in 2012, or arguably in Cairo in 2009, the needle moves the right way. But he doesn’t seem to want to do this very often. Rather than try to change him at this point, for the sake of our future, we need a corporate re-structure: get others to do it.
Obama seems even less interested in glad-handing people; that’s fairly well-established by now. It’s not really fair for Obama to continue to suffer by comparison to Bill Clinton; Bush didn’t like to cozy up to a lot of people either. Again, though, this could be delegated.
I voted for President Obama twice; I worked for him in Nevada when the state was polling even. I still believe in trying to get 51% of the people to agree to the right thing when the time is right. But after five years I’m not sure that Obama believes he can get those people anymore, or that he wants to bother to try. For the sake of our future prosperity, he ought to have someone else start giving these State of the Union speeches.