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Shadow Government

The Opportunity Obama Missed in the State of the Union

President Obama’s address showed he just isn’t that interested in governing.


It was perversely fascinating to watch the man who condescendingly explained to the Republican congressional leadership in 2009 that “elections have consequences” sail with such imperious disdain through a speech wholly unconnected to the political realities of the legislative body to which he delivered this speech. The White House appeared to be testing the theory that if only Democrats had run on the president’s agenda, they wouldn’t have lost in November. As an intellectual exercise, it showed a stunning ability to disregard hostile fortune. As a practical matter, President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address showed he just isn’t that interested in governing.

A president who has lost control of the Congress has basically three options: 1) steal the opposition’s ideas and generously offer them the opportunity to work with you to make them law; 2) refuse to implement legislation passed by the Congress, bringing government to grinding halt; or 3) pivot to foreign policy. You’ll notice there isn’t a section in the playbook about laying out an agenda that has just been repudiated in elections and daring the Congress to ignore it. That tends to result in the Congress ignoring the agenda, which is likely what the 114th Congress will do with this one. Sitting behind the president, John Boehner didn’t look worried — he looked embalmed.

This would have been an advantageous moment for President Obama to surprise us; to take for credit the best ideas Republicans are considering: for job creation and tax reform, budgeting to alleviate sequestration, regulation to advance America’s energy independence while protecting our environment, strengthening our national security at a time when the public is worried. To identify areas for potential compromise that show the government working for the American people, and invite Republicans to work together in a new spirit of unity. A time to explain that the world is uncertain and dangerous and therefore requires ever closer cooperation with our friends, and ever greater efforts to create positive change in parts of the world slipping into chaos. President Obama did none of those things in his State of the Union address.

Instead, President Obama was a ringmaster clanging cymbals and rolling out a miniature circus of expensive novelties that have no hope of being taken seriously by the legislators Americans elected to office. Indeed, these ideas were not even considered when the president’s party controlled both houses of Congress. It was a peroration for the ages — Barack Obama conjuring up his misty Camelot of holy grails that might have been grasped if only this visionary, historic president could be freed of an intransigent Congress that needs to practice “better politics.”

Wholly absent from this Arthurian legend was any effort to pull from stone the Excalibur that is the commander-in-chief’s primary responsibility. He used the military as an applause line, nothing more. He again counterpoised “being dragged into another ground war in the Middle East” as a counterpoint against wise policy. His claim to a “smarter kind of American leadership” would be funny if it weren’t so sad on the day Yemen’s presidential palace was overrun — Yemen being the example President Obama used as a success story last time.

The president claimed the United States has enjoyed a strong economic recovery and proposed tax increases amounting to $320 billion in revenue, yet proposed spending all that money and more — with no relief from defense cuts. The inescapable conclusion after this State of the Union is that defense just isn’t a priority for the Obama administration.

He also did not credit Republicans in Congress with its support for trade promotion authority. He did not thank Congress for its strong stand on sanctions against Iran or ask its tolerance, even after his deadline passed for an Iran agreement. Instead he insisted Congress’s approach “doesn’t make sense.” He called Congress out for not passing a use of force resolution against the Islamic State — something he said two months ago was unnecessary and has not yet submitted to them for consideration. He claimed he leads “not with bluster, but with steady resolve.” He claimed America’s Cuba policy had failed for 50 years, and was nothing more than “a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba.” He made Congress sound like the cause of our cyber vulnerability. He claimed our use of drones is “properly constrained” and that “while some have moved on” after the Snowden revelations, he continues to work to reform our intelligence community “with the advice of privacy advocates.” He claimed Guantanamo “made no sense.”

President Obama seems sadly incapable of the graciousness that gives political adversaries incentives to cooperate — he even made a gratuitous ad lib about having won both his campaigns. And yet he claimed his willingness to work with Republicans, at the end of an hour of politicized rhetoric that didn’t give them a single olive branch. The country is thirsting for a statesman, and President Obama cannot rise above being a petty politician.

Imagine instead that he had had invited Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto to sit with the First Lady, extolling them — especially in this time of rising terrorist threats — as the best neighbors any country could have, societies that share the United States’ values of diversity, tolerance, opportunity, hard work, playing by the rules, and representative government. He might have emphasized that America’s security and prosperity are inextricably linked to Mexico and Canada. That Canada’s soundness and Mexico’s transformation present North America with a once-in-a-century opportunity for integration to the benefit the people of all three countries, and that he was determined to work with the Congress to remove roadblocks holding back businesses trying to create jobs and opportunities that will make North America a manufacturing, services, trading, and innovation envy of the world. It might even have ignited some interest in his role to use foreign policy creatively.

Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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