More than 10 years after the attacks of September 11, 2001 quashed quaint notions about the end of the Cold War bringing “an end to history,” President Barack Obama all but declared history over once again in Tuesday night’s State of the Union address. This time, at least, history ended with clapping.
Give Obama credit for starting strong. In the opening two minutes, he packed a punch with a deserved applause line for killing Osama bin Laden and less-deserved ones for removing all U.S. troops from Iraq and winding down the war in Afghanistan as if the future of those two countries had no bearing on America’s future.
Thus began the first State of the Union in 10 years with no direct reference to the 9/11 attacks. Instead of pushing the advance of freedom, Obama declared “the defining issue of our time” to be economic fairness.
Who could argue? By saying so from the bully pulpit, Obama made it so. His friends in the media and even some Republicans were all too happy to pick up the theme by piling on former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s tax returns.
Lest any of Obama’s surrogates miss his meaning, the word “fair” appeared seven times more often than the word “freedom” in his speech — a strange balance given that Americans have traditionally derived their sense of fairness from their God-given right to freedom.
Obama previewed this rhetorical shift shortly before the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 when he summoned a joint session of Congress for a lecture about the economy without even mentioning the attacks. Contrast that performance with the special message that President George W. Bush delivered to Congress after the hijackings. “We have found our mission and our moment,” Bush said then of the advance of freedom.
Listening to Tuesday’s State of the Union, one could only conclude that this moment has passed. Lost was all sense of priorities or purpose. Even by State of the Union standards, Obama’s address made a muddled mess. It careened from one topic to another with haphazard transitions like this rich insight into the financial crisis: “Of course, construction workers weren’t the only ones who were hurt.”
Lost also was all sense of time. At their best, presidential speeches put events in historical context. At their worst, presidential speeches divorce present challenges and policies from the past and future. Tuesday night’s performance was the latter.
Most striking was the break with the past given the speech came at the beginning of an election year. At a time when most presidents would wax about their achievements, Obama wisely left most of his resume on the cutting room floor.
The stimulus that dominated the opening months of the administration could not even buy a line while the White House speechwriters rationed health care reform to only a couple mentions. No doubt Obama’s advisers recommended downplaying these legislative victories that Americans once heard would lift up the economy.
The failure of these policies explains why Obama also avoided looking too far into the future. He only promised to work toward “an economy built to last.” Whatever that phrase means, it does not set a high bar for growth.
After years of stagnant growth, it is difficult to persuade Americans that better days are around the corner. So instead of raising hopes for expanding the economic pie, Obama asked Americans to settle for dividing what they have today into smaller pieces.
Hence, the president’s preference for fairness over freedom. To win re-election, he needs to convince the “growing number” of families struggling to “get by” that their problems are the result of “a shrinking number of people” who “do really well.” In other words, blame the free market; blame the one percent; just don’t blame Obama.
The speech reached the height of absurdity when Obama gestured toward the woman sitting with his wife in the balcony — Warren Buffett’s secretary, who, according to Washington lore, pays a higher tax rate than her billionaire boss. Obama wants this alleged outrage to represent his campaign for class fairness, but Buffett represents no class because his extraordinary wealth puts him in a class to himself.
Such gimmicks say nothing about the state of our union and everything about the state of Obama’s presidency. With serious challenges at home and abroad, the administration can only offer passing distractions to escape the demands of history.
After every State of the Union, commentators ask whether the president’s words will stand the test of time. Too bad Obama’s are already lost in time. Guess they weren’t built to last.
Jonathan Horn was a speechwriter and special assistant for President George W. Bush. He is now the President and CEO of Jonathan Horn Communications, LLC and a senior strategist at Oval Office Writers, LLC.