Was Obama's State of the Union his second farewell address?
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
As a special service to journalists, commentators, and water-cooler pundits around America, I offer five different ways to frame your comments and thinking about President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address — in terms that will lend the speech some of the zest and creativity it otherwise lacked.
1. Daft Prez
Face it, if the president were a type of music, he’d be techno. And if there were a model for what we saw last night, it might be Daft Punk, the French duo who cleaned up at the Grammys this year for their hit song and album "Get Lucky." The lyrics to the chorus of that song, "We’ve come too far to give up who we are" also happened to be the theme of Barack Obama’s address. In it, he reiterated most of the core policies and plans of his presidency, rehashed some old achievements and promises, and then essentially said, having come this far, if Congress wouldn’t let him be, he’d find a way to remain true to himself even if it meant acting alone, via executive order.
Of course, the next line of the song is "So let’s raise the bar and our cups to the stars" which, while it suggests higher goals, actually just leads to the refrain that in order to reach those goals, we’re going to have to "get lucky." Admittedly, in the song, this means one thing; for America and Obama, getting lucky means something else … it means that the country’s growth is going to depend on the litany of folks outside Washington getting it done, because the government isn’t going to be able to do that much. Fortunately, the rest of the country is doing better than its leaders in Washington, and that’s why the fact that this State of the Union was pretty formulaic and well, a bit robotic, probably won’t matter for most people. Because when Washington checks out, America keeps going and as a consequence, ensures that the State of the Union is well ahead of the state of affairs in the capital.
2. You’re a Good President, Charlie Brown
For all his gifts as a speaker, and those were readily apparent last night as the president delivered his hour-long remarks, there was also a certain forlorn quality to Obama’s delivery last night. Gone was the audacity of hope. Gone were the grand goals for America. Gone were the assertions that this was a man who could change Washington. This was a president who was resigned to trying to advance his agenda in a dysfunctional Washington. Even his most upbeat statements about the nature of America’s economic recovery or the advancement of his international agenda, came with caveats. Yes, we’re recovering, he said, but it’s really only benefitting the rich and big companies. Yes, we’re getting out of Afghanistan, we got out of Iraq, and have pushed back against the old al Qaeda leadership, but the prognosis for the countries we are leaving is grim and al Qaeda is spreading in a new form. But this Charlie Brown president would not have Congress keep pulling the football away every time he tries to kick it. Instead, keeping true to the Charlie Brownian motto, "I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand," he said that he would find a way to go it alone, offering up a few areas where he could take executive action that might make a dent, albeit a very modest one, on America’s great domestic challenges like slow job creation and burgeoning inequality.
3. The Drone Presidency
In the midst of his address, buried among the folksy stories and show and tell with the human props populating the First Lady’s box (a now standard and cheaply manipulative fare of State of the Union speeches), the president employed a technique worth noting. He argued that he was taking a stand against the use of drones worldwide that has produced such harsh backlash and was reining them in. Of course, he didn’t mention that he was actually the guy who dramatically expanded the programs using unmanned aircrafts in the first place. He also took a stand suggesting he wanted to reform the surveillance programs that grew to their present, out of control levels under his leadership. He also called for progress on immigration reform that he essentially ignored throughout his first term (actually overseeing deportations at twice the rate of his predecessor). He also sought to gain credit for calling for Guantanamo Bay to be shut down … even though doing so was a campaign promise that he has failed to follow through on for five years. In short, some of the key elements of this speech involved the president taking a tough stand against himself — a bit like launching a drone that is programmed to target its own tail.
4. Barack Obama’s Second Farewell Address
I was recently told by a diplomat friend from elsewhere in our hemisphere that one Latin American head of state posed the theory that Barack Obama’s first inaugural address was really his farewell address. In this widely respected leader’s view, that was because it was at the moment of that address that he achieved what would inevitably be his biggest accomplishment — becoming the first African American U.S. president. This other head of state, a man sympathetic to many of Obama’s goals, felt it was an accomplishment so big that it would be impossible to top; inevitably, he had already achieved the thing for which history would best remember him.
While neat and not altogether uncommon, the assessment is unfair. During his first few years in office, Obama has accomplished a great deal: from helping to oversee the economic recovery of the United States to ending two misguided American wars to producing substantial health care and financial services reforms. But even if you buy into this Latin statesman’s view of Obama’s first inaugural, you couldn’t help but see in the State of the Union elements of what might then be viewed as a second farewell address.
The speech was that of a man with a limited agenda, with limited hopes of getting much done, hemmed in his job by the most obstructionist Congress in history, buffeted by a world he does not feel he can very well control, finding a glide path for his presidency that would get him safely and with as little turbulence as possible to his ultimate historical destination. As striking as the speech was for the absence of big ideas, it was more striking for its absence of great energy or ambitions. It was clear the president had hoped for more. It was clear that he knows more needs to be done. It was even clear he had some strong ideas about how to do it. But with every goal in the speech there was also an undercurrent of a man acutely aware of the limitations of his office, of the system in which he works and of his consequent inability to do much of what he had once hoped and promised to do. If not exactly a farewell address, it was certainly one suffused with resignation.
5. My 600-lb. Life
If you wanted to see someone really grappling with big problems on Tuesday night as the president spoke, you could have switched channels and watched an episode of "My 600-Lb. Life" — TLC’s reality show that aired opposite the State of the Union. Apparently, most Americans made a similar viewing choice. The ratings for the president’s address, despite being shown on every major network and news channel (over 16 channels in all), were low and likely continued the downward slide experienced over the past five years in SOTU viewership. In 2009, his first such speech garnered 52 million such viewers, according to Nielsen, the rating’s service, in 2013, the number was down to 33 million.
If last night held true to form, that means that nine out of 10 Americans were doing something else while the president was talking (which, if you picked up the theme from the opening of the president’s remarks, may not be a bad thing). Because in that effective and also telling opening, essentially Barack Obama sent the message that State of the Union is strong despite Washington rather than because of it, driven by Americans going about the business of their lives rather than the women and men who gathered last night to go through yet another largely meaningless ritual on Capitol Hill.