President Obama has delivered his final state of the union address to Congress. The White House drummed up expectations by promising a speech less concerned with policy minutiae than with long-term vision, and what we finally got fit this description.
After the president’s address came the Republican response by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Haley’s performance won her plaudits from many on the Right, with some even suggesting the vice presidency is in the offing for her.
She began with a characterization of Obama’s oratory: “Barack Obama’s election as president seven years ago broke historic barriers and inspired millions of Americans. As he did when he first ran for office, tonight President Obama spoke eloquently about grand things. He is at his best when he does that. Unfortunately, the president’s record has often fallen far short of his soaring words.”
I’m glad Haley began her address this way, because it does conservatives no good to deny what millions of Americans know to be true: Obama is a gifted speaker. A reasonable response to Obama, therefore, will not attempt to discredit his capacity to inspire but expose his inability to lead. Framing her response this way was therefore an inspired decision, and it provides us an opportunity to reflect on the mismatch between Obama’s words and his actions.
Language Is All His Supporters Have to Tout
Obama’s strategy has always involved using the power of rhetoric to persuade and inspire. When the opportunity for a potential “history book” moment presents itself — such as during historic firsts and lasts (e.g. his final state of the union) — Obama goes all out to be as memorable as possible. This is a president whose sense of importance is so grandiose it led him to release two memoirs before ever announcing a bid for the presidency. This is a president who understands himself as the leader of a fundamentally transformative social movement (“We are the ones we have been waiting for”), as the very embodiment of progress in action.
Conservatives are often accused of harboring an irrational animus toward Obama — we’re said to hate him more than we hate any other president in history. Whatever the merits of that claim, I don’t want to add to it by giving the impression I have a problem with eloquent oratory. I’m not calling the president boring.
The problem, rather, as Haley ably pointed out, is that Obama’s rhetoric is wildly out of step with his performance. His language is overindulgent relative to his accomplishments. Again, it’s not that presidents shouldn’t attempt to inspire, it’s that Obama’s oratory is often embarrassingly lofty for a president whose record just doesn’t measure up. The elevated language isn’t the problem per se; it’s that this language misdescribes reality.
A little over a year ago, New York Magazine asked 53 historians to weigh in on what they project Obama’s legacy will be. Some played up the symbolism of a first black president; others focused on the transformative impact that policies such as Obamacare would have. My estimation is that Obama’s speeches, his words, will play an outsized role in our retrospectives of his presidency. They will end up eclipsing and even far outpacing his accomplishments.
The irony is that the promise of an Obama presidency, with its expectation of reaching post-partisan harmony, has instead ushered in an era of unprecedented polarization. Yet since this won’t be the image many academics and media sympathizers will want to use to frame these years, what they will look to instead are his speeches.
These will be the most readily available, and most politically fertile, sources for the counter narrative: that Obama was an eloquent herald of an optimistic vision for America, too often obstructed by implacable congressional naysayers. It is Obama’s speeches that most naturally lend themselves to furnishing this revisionist view.
We’re Cynical Because Obama Misled Us
Another of Obama’s legacies will be to have desensitized Americans to the thrill of soaring political rhetoric. The frenzied support generated by quasi-messianic appeals to his transformative power as a candidate in 2008 remain a thing of wonder.
But when the “hope” and “change” campaign gave way to the frustrating reality that Washington’s other politicians wouldn’t automatically bend to Obama’s will (although an unnervingly large amount of them did, and many from the Republican aisle), the American people noticed. Entering office, Obama’s approval rating was nearly 70 percent; not even a year later, his numbers sank below 50 percent.
I suspect this has made American ears immune to the actual power of grandiose language. In 2008, this sort of oratory moved the electoral needle; in 2016, an understandable measure of cynicism has crept in. Consider the Wilsonian stupor of last year’s state of the union: “America, for all that we have endured; for all the grit and hard work required to come back; for all the tasks that lie ahead, know this: The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong. At this moment — with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, booming energy production — we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth.”
There is much to be said for projecting political optimism. Reagan’s “morning in America” ad remains a watershed in political messaging. But can anyone seriously argue that Obama’s description above comes anywhere close to accurately depicting America heading into 2015? The “shadow of crisis has passed”?
The language is beautiful, certainly, but it describes a different world. In his final state of the union, Obama attempted to draw a contrast between the so-called alarmism of the Right and his own brand of optimism — yet this represents a fundamental misreading of our current political climate. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and the other non-traditional candidates are not generating support by “running down” America, but by tapping into a feeling that we can do much better. This makes their emergence a more accurate gauge for determining the state of our union. Voters are resoundingly declaring that we are going in the wrong direction, and we had better get back on the right path.
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