Published on TheHill.com on January 26, 2011
Henry Kissinger, in his memoir of the Ford administration, Years of Upheaval, articulated the central rule of governing: “It is a statesman’s duty to bridge the gap between his nation’s experience and his vision. If his vision gets too far out ahead of his nation’s experience, he will lose his mandate. But if he hews too close to the conventional, he will lose control over events.”
Obama has gone from the first of these dangers to the second.
In his first two years in office, he was manifestly so far removed from America’s experience and ideals that he lost the election of 2010. His big spending, overregulation, government takeovers and bailouts and healthcare program cost him his mandate. But, in his State of the Union speech, he hewed so close to the conventional that he will now lose control over events.
His speech marks the real end of his presidency and the ascendancy of congressional government led by the House Republican agenda.
A president’s major power is his ability to set the national agenda. But Obama’s State of the Union agenda was so boring, mundane, conventional and recycled that it will not capture either the national imagination or even center stage. It cannot drown out the drama of Republican efforts to slash spending, repeal ObamaCare, roll back federal regulations, block carbon taxes, kill union card-check and free community banks from regulatory paralysis. The ball is now in the Republicans’ court.
The central mission of the Clinton comeback was to eradicate the memory and record of 1993-94. The compelling agenda spelled out by the president captured the nation’s attention and blotted out his early failures. Welfare reform, deficit reduction, tobacco regulation and Clinton’s second two-year agenda stole the stage from HillaryCare, gays in the military, Waco and the Clinton tax increases.
But as the Republicans repeal or defund the discredited Obama programs of 2009-10, they will assure that these failed initiatives dominate the election of 2012. If Obama opts for stalemate — his only alternative to surrender if the GOP holds firm — he will just prolong the shelf life of these issues and assure that they will provide the issues in 2012 — to his detriment.
On another level, Obama’s speech was a plea for a second chance. But his opposition to the Republican agenda will belie his moderation and will show it to be the same sleight of hand as was his vague embrace of change during his presidential campaign. Americans believe in the old adage: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” They will give a president a second chance, but not a third one.
In the meantime, a star was born in the Republican reply delivered by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. His articulation of conservative principles was the clearest and most compelling I have heard since Ronald Reagan. The force of his delivery, the reasonableness of his manner and the positive tone with which he undermined and discredited Obama’s program were all admirable. When he said that the president’s spending programs were “stimulus repackaged as investments” he rebutted the bulk of the president’s speech. Ryan, who swears he won’t run for president, may find himself drafted.
Obama’s proclamation that he had “broken the back of the recession” will inspire howls of disbelief and ridicule throughout the nation. With 9 percent-plus unemployment, how can a president say these words with a straight face?
To Obama’s credit, this was the first pro-American speech he has given, embracing American exceptionalism, celebrating the American Dream and honoring our servicemen and women — boilerplate for any other president, but unusual for this one. His calls for recruiters to be allowed on campus, his rejection of earmarks and pledge to veto them and his embrace of medical malpractice reform were the only good points in his speech.
This speech was not enough to save this presidency.