The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at WSJ written by the editor, James Taranto.
Out on a Limb
“The GOP Race Hasn’t Stuck to the Script”—headline, NationalReview, Jan. 13
State of Disunion
“I stand here confident that the State of our Union is strong,”President Obama summed things up last night. To which one might have puckishly responded: Strong maybe, but what union?
The invited audience at the annual address included many human symbols of national division: culture-war conscientious objectors Kim Davis and the Little Sisters of the Poor; Jim Obergefell, victor in the Supreme Court battle that occasioned Davis’s objection; representatives from Black Lives Matter and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. There were even empty seats to show disrespect for the Second Amendment and opposition to abortion.
The president acknowledged the country’s divided state in the most interesting line of his address:
It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency—that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.
Likewise, there’s no doubt our column would improve if we wrote as well as Shakespeare: We thank God for our humility.
It would have been more interesting—and shown real self-awareness—if the president had acknowledged his political talents are in some respects wanting when compared not with the universally acknowledged great presidents but with the successful presidents of his own lifetime. We’re thinking here of Reagan and Clinton, who like Obama held office during fractious (if not quite as fractious) periods under divided government. In terms of both compromising with the opposition and emerging victorious from confrontations with it, Reagan and Clinton each enjoyed considerably more success than Obama.
There’s a glaring disconnect in Obama’s characterization of partisan “rancor and suspicion” as being among his “few regrets.” What he’s saying is that he does not regret his actions, only their inevitable consequences. In his 2008 campaign he aspired to unify the country, but he also aspired to “transform” it, “fundamentally” no less. Transformation turned out to be the priority.
His signature “achievements”—we’re thinking here of ObamaCare and the Iran deal—were won by bullying doubters in his own party, shutting the other party out entirely, and, crucially, ignoring overwhelming public opposition. He’d have accomplished a lot more had the country been on his side, but had the country been on his side, there would be no need for fundamental transformation. He seldom evinces any doubt that he is right and his detractors—even if they include the large majority of the American people—are wrong.
That attitude expresses itself in what David Gelernter, writing in the Weekly Standard, calls “the Obama sneer”:
FDR’s bouncy, feisty smile, Reagan’s geniality, Clinton’s one-of-the-boys grin, W’s good-natured earnestness are part of history; and Obama’s real “legacy” (aside from worldwide crisis) is that bitter sneer. His rudeness to political opponents has made a rotten political climate much worse.
The Obama sneer is polarizing, which serves him poorly in some regards and well in others. It makes him look weak and reactive and alienates people who are not already on his side. On the other hand, it’s an effective technique for rallying his partisans. And Obama has set the tone for the campaign to succeed him. Both parties’ leading candidates to succeed Obama—Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders—are following his lead in that they are running campaigns of division.
The sneer was very much in evidence last night (note that these quotes are from the address as prepared; there were slight variations in the delivery):
Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction. . . . Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You’ll be pretty lonely. . . . I told you earlier all the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air. . . . As we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. . . . Our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians. That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage. We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire. . . . We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. This isn’t a matter of political correctness. . . . When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world.
Toward the end, he observed: “A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything.” But as the above, far-from-conclusive list demonstrates, he demands agreement on a hell of a lot.
The assertion that “it diminishes us in the eyes of the world” when “a kid is bullied” (“called names” in his ad-lib) is just bizarre. The idea that we can “try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis” is unrecognizable even as a caricature of any view anyone currently espouses. (It sounds like a caricature of George W. Bush’s 2005 inaugural.)
The reference to carpet-bombing was an allusion to something Cruz said, but Obama seemed to be reacting to Trump more than anyone else. The liberal site Talking Points Memo has a list of “Obama’s Top 10 Shots at Trump in the State of the Union Address.” (Trump himself was in typical form last night, tweeting “The #SOTU speech is really boring, slow, lethargic—very hard to watch!”)
The Republican response was also widely understood as a rebuke to Trump. Real Clear Politics’ Caitlin Huey-Burns:
Nikki Haley’s response to the president’s State of the Union address on behalf of the GOP was much more a rebuttal to the Donald Trump-style of politics that has tainted her party in the race to succeed Barack Obama.
“During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation,” the South Carolina governor said from the statehouse in Columbia, S.C., Tuesday night.
That Trump was evidently such an influence last night confirms his status as the most dominant figure in American politics today. He is likely to retain that status at least for the next four weeks, and he hopes it will be closer to nine years. Just how long it turns out to be will have a lot to do with the ultimate character of the Obama legacy.
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