The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at WSJ written by the editor, James Taranto.
Hair Bites Dog
“Petco Pulls Dog Calming Supplement off the Shelf After It Is Revealed the Boozy Treats Are 13 Percent Alcohol”—headline, Daily Mail (London), Jan. 17
State of the Union
The way President Obama began his State of the Union speech was a bit of a head-scratcher. He said:
We are 15 years into this new century. Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world. It has been, and still is, a hard time for many.
But tonight, we turn the page.
“Tonight, we turn the page”? That’s certainly a comedown from “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” That was 6½ years ago! But last night, we turned the page. What comes now, Miller time?
Vox’s Ezra Klein tries to fluff the presidential pillow. He calls the turn-the-page line “the most striking sentence” of the speech. Well, soft bigotry of low expectations and all that, but here’s what it’s supposed to mean. Klein writes:
It is the seventh year of Obama’s presidency. But it’s the first in which the economy is no longer in crisis. And so it’s the first in which Obama’s State of the Union proposals no longer reeked of crisis. . . .
The “turn the page” line wasn’t just rhetoric. It was policy, too. In every State of the Union since Obama took office, he has offered policy built for an emergency. It’s been huge plans to rescue the financial sector or pump stimulus into a failing economy or deal with an unemployment crisis or beat back a rising tide of red ink. . . .
Even on foreign policy, Obama seemed freed from the shackles of past emergencies. While America still has some troops overseas, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are largely over. Russia’s currency has collapsed, allowing Obama to declare a kind of victory against Vladimir Putin’s various provocations in 2014, and Ebola has been beaten back from America’s shores. There’s even a thaw with Cuba.
Let’s start with foreign policy. Obama actually asserted: “The shadow of crisis has passed”—an odd statement to make less than two weeks after the Islamist atrocities in Paris.
We noticed one country Obama left off his list of putative foreign-policy successes: Yemen. That’s significant because in a speech just four months ago, Obama cited Yemen as a counterterror success story. What’s happened in the past couple of weeks? The Paris terrorists were revealed to have been trained in Yemen. That didn’t stop the administration from freeing five Yemeni terrorists from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay (from which the president reiterated last night he means to release every last terrorist).
On Tuesday came word that Iranian-backed Shiite militias had invaded the Yemeni presidential palace. (President Obama did mention his determination to strike a nuclear deal with Tehran, and his threat to veto bipartisan sanctions legislation.) During the President’s speech, somebody tweeted this CNN story from a few hours earlier: “Two U.S. Navy warships moved into new positions in the Red Sea late Monday to be ready to evacuate Americans from the US embassy in Yemen if an order comes to do so.”
Has the shadow of crisis really passed, or has the world just become darker? As for the economy, on what basis can one declare it passed out of crisis yesterday, or sometime in the past year? The recession technically ended years ago, but growth remains slow. Unemployment and gasoline prices are both at their lowest since George W. Bush was president. But median wages and labor-market participation have continued to decline.
And is it really true that Obama’s economic policies up to this point have all been “built for an emergency”? What about ObamaCare? Klein does include the hair-splitting qualification that he’s referring to earlier State of the Union speeches, and the big health-care address to a joint session of Congress was a separate event. At any rate, all Klein says about ObamaCare is that Obama said “little” about it last night:
The omission was particularly notable given that open enrollment for Obamacare is ongoing, and the State of the Union offers President Obama the largest audience he’s likely to have for awhile. He could have directed people to the (smoothly functioning) HealthCare.Gov marketplaces and bragged about how many have already enrolled. The absence of any serious discussion of Obamacare was clearly intentional—and fit a speech in which Obama seemed intent on looking forward to new problems and policies rather than backwards to older ones.
It seems to us that gets it exactly wrong. We’d speculate that the reasons Obama shied away from his “signature achievement” are twofold: First, because boasts about how well it’s doing are persuasive only to true believers, and this speech aimed to reach a broader audience. Second, because of an aversion to “looking forward to new problems”—namely the prospect that the U.S. Supreme Court will strike down the IRS’s administrative decree purporting to authorize subsidies for policies purchased on an exchange not established by a state in contravention of the law itself.
Toward the end of his speech, the president launched into a sort of greatest-hits medley:
You know, just over a decade ago, I gave a speech in Boston where I said there wasn’t a liberal America or a conservative America; a black America or a white America—but a United States of America. I said this because I had seen it in my own life, in a nation that gave someone like me a chance; because I grew up in Hawaii, a melting pot of races and customs; because I made Illinois my home—a state of small towns, rich farmland, one of the world’s great cities; a microcosm of the country where Democrats and Republicans and Independents, good people of every ethnicity and every faith, share certain bedrock values.
Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision. How ironic, they say, that our politics seems more divided than ever. It’s held up as proof not just of my own flaws—of which there are many—but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided, naive, that there are too many people in this town who actually benefit from partisanship and gridlock for us to ever do anything about it.
I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong. I still believe that we are one people. I still believe that together, we can do great things, even when the odds are long.
We’re far from alone in pointing out that in inveighing against cynicism, the president is himself acting cynically. With a few exceptions, his legislative proposals are certain to be rejected by the congressional majorities the voters elected 2½ months ago. As the Washington Examiner’s Byron York argued in a column previewing the speech, the purpose of the proposals is tactical:
Of course Obama knows his plan is anathema to Republicans, but if they debate the president on his terms, he makes progress.
“It works if we let it work,” says the Republican strategist. “When Obama says something, the question is: Is that the most important thing we should be talking about now, or should we be setting the agenda? Is it something that we have to immediately engage and begin talking about? Which means he has set the agenda.”
If he sets the agenda, Republicans in Congress will block it. The presidential veto—which he threatened to use numerous times—ensures that the reverse is also true. Perhaps it will turn out to be the case “that together, we can do great things.” But not for the next two years.
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