Open mic night at the State of the Union
I despise watching the State of the Union address. The President’s annual command performance is the Super Bowl of speeches. For every epic tilt involving the scrappy underdog New York Giants spiking a previously undefeated New England Patriots with a game-winning drive as time expires, there’s a yawner featuring a Mike Ditka-led Chicago Bears throwing the Patriots off the roof of the stadium. No matter who wins, the winner’s fans will cheer their masterpiece of a victory. Meanwhile, the losers’ fans will blame the conditions, the referees or, in the case of the Patriots’ victims in their three victories, deliberately underinflated footballs. Likewise, no matter how well the president follows the teleprompter, his supporters will declare the speech a feat of Ciceronian quality, while his detractors will proclaim it the worst thing they’ve endured since their last visit to the doctor’s office.
Actually, that’s unfair, albeit not to the Patriots. Even blowouts usually sport someone putting on a show for the ages. In fact, the State of the Union is really the Super Bowl halftime show of speeches. Barring a colossal blunder or epic roof-raiser, both productions are largely overproduced, underperformed and forgettable. Sometimes, Prince rocks the house. Sometimes, FDR delivers “The Four Freedoms” (a terrific piece of wordsmithing, politics be damned). But mostly, both productions are merely a brief respite before the two opponents get back to tearing each other to pieces.
The State of the Union is a constitutional requirement. The president of the United States accepts a pro forma invitation from the speaker of the House of Representatives. He shows up in late January. He shakes hands with the party faithful types who set up for aisle space like sci-fi nerds staking out places in line for the midnight showing of the new Star Wars movie. He then delivers a speech somewhere between “Thank God that’s over” and “Does this guy ever shut up?” President Nixon brought home his 1972 address in just under 29 minutes. In 2000, President Bill Clinton made the nation squirm uncomfortably for an hour longer. Neither speech would make either disgraced chief executive’s top 10 lists, proving only that Nixon was much more efficient about lying on national television.
On the surface, Obama’s sixth edition was as forgettable as most. He laid out the usual partisan platitudes, unfulfillable promises and outright lies — in his case, “women’s health” (aka abortion), “free” community college and some argle-bargle about whatever they’re calling global warming this week. He took credit for things with which he had nothing to do and blamed his own failures on other people. That’s no partisan dig. Obama hardly broke new ground in that department.
But then, well into the speech, Obama spun out. What had until then been a fairly unremarkable parade of applause lines and filler turned into a nasty, hypocritical rant. He crowed about his electoral invulnerability, “I have no more campaigns to run,” with the supposedly ad-libbed suffix, “I won both of them.” The president of the United States, standing in the chamber of the House of Representatives, addressing the nation he serves, decided to test out his skills for improv night at the Ha-Ha Hut — because that’s treating the office of the presidency, and the people by whose assent it exists, with the respect it deserves.
In what will be, barring impeachment, eight years in office, Obama will have countless fundraising dinners, special interest bull sessions and backroom deal-making soirees in which to work through all his best one-liners. And he can make jokes about how much he hates conservatives all evening when he grubs for dough at some Hollywood superstar’s Malibu beach palace. Maybe he could leave the late night audition material for those occasions.
Upon further examination, Tuesday’s effort was actually a new direction, even for Obama. Beyond the sudden “nah-nee, nah-nee, boo-boo” moment, Obama also managed to set marks for new levels of hypocrisy. The same speech that contained his now-infamous “ad-libbed” moment contained a plea for more bipartisan compromise, “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.” He whined about the endless dialing for dollars of campaign life “constant fundraising” while his wife simultaneously used the speech to dig for ducats and his party followed the speech with an emailed, Obama-signed fundraising plea before the rest of his party could fire a hailstorm of almost shocking misogyny at Republican respondent Sen. Joni Ernst.
He also managed to argue against himself. Mere moments after he lifted his chin over the success sanctions have had in keeping Russia from overrunning huge swaths of Ukrainian territory, he warned congressional Republicans from imposing similar measures against Iran. He railed against armed interventions and then demanded authorization to arm up and intervene in the Mideast. He repeated delusional claims about inroads against islamofascism but avoided acknowledging the existence of islamofascism. He acted as if the newly dropping gas prices — over which he claimed no influence when they hovered near the $4-per-gallon mark — were a product of his will and then yammered about Al Gore’s inconvenient science fiction project, avoiding acknowledging the price-kiting effects of so-called “climate change” measures, the war on America’s coal industry and his party’s stated plan to try to impose new taxes on fuel, thereby raising prices on middle- and lower-class Americans before they get too comfortable with affordable gasoline.
He even made the claim “middle-class economics works.” At best a passable bumper-sticker slogan, it loses adhesion pretty quickly measured against the record numbers of Americans permanently exiled from the workforce, working multiple “McJobs” to stay afloat and looking across a wealth gap that has widened by leaps and bounds as a direct result of his policies. Obama also included a boast about Wall Street’s unprecedented success, an unsubtle elbow in the ribs to the hundreds of millions of Americans who have never seen a bonus check from Goldman Sachs.
Obama’s sixth State of the union was clearly not what the Framers of the Constitution had in mind when they penned Article 2, Section 3. He’s not the first president to turn the address into a sideshow, and he likely won’t be the last. But he is the first president to turn the address into an opportunity to turn to the opposition — and the majority of the people whom they represent — and smugly flip them the proverbial bird. At some level, I suppose I can understand his motivation. After all, the people just did the same thing to his party and him last November. The difference is, as he’s so fond of reminding us: We’re not the president; he is. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer invited guests refrain from publicly insulting their hosts while standing in their house. Dude, you’re the president. Act like it.