President Barack Obama delivered a State of the Union Address on Tuesday that was important less for what he said than for what it says about him.
The speech was long, more than an hour. At times it was defiant, at others it felt almost conciliatory. But mostly the speech was forgettable, disposable – a long list of modest policy proposals that will not be remembered for much longer than their echo in the House chamber.
On domestic policy, we knew what to expect. The stars of last year’s speech – immigration and gun control – were mere afterthoughts this year, reminders of what the president cannot accomplish. White House officials had told reporters on background that the president would emphasize his determination to act, with or without Congress. Obama sought to make that point with an announcement that he intends to pay new employees of federal contractors a minimum wage of $10.10. But this proposal, touted by Obama advisers in advance of the speech, didn’t make the president look resolute so much as it made him look small. The president who spoke in Berlin to the “citizens of the world,” who triumphantly addressed a sold-out stadium on a stage framed by Greek columns, who promised to heal the planet, and who has repeatedly vowed that he would transform America, was left to offer administrative tweaks on the wages of some workers paid by government contractors.
In his brief discussion of foreign policy and national security, the problem was incoherence. On Iran, almost certainly the most important national security challenge in the coming year, the president was tough, even making threats to those who would defy him. But Obama didn’t issue those warnings to the Iranian regime, which sits atop the State Department’s list of state terror sponsors and recently honored the late terror leader, Imad Mugniyah. And he didn’t chastise Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, who boasted on Twitter that the recent nuclear deal had bent the flaccid West to the Iranian will and who told Fareed Zakaria last week that Iran would not dismantle a single centrifuge as part of the agreement. Instead, Obama reserved his tough language for those members of Congress who want new sanctions, threatening to veto any such legislation. He celebrated past sanctions that made diplomacy possible without revealing that the White House had fought against many of them.
The president mentioned Iraq three times, twice to celebrate our withdrawal and once to add the country to last year’s list of places we’ll have to fight al Qaeda affiliates. He seemed not to understand that these things are related.
In Afghanistan, he seems determined to make the same mistakes. Obama boasted that “we will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America’s longest war will finally be over again.” Did we? In 2009, he said, “to succeed, we … must reverse the Taliban’s gains and promote a more capable and accountable Afghan government.”
It was, in short, a small and rather incoherent speech from a president who seems unsure how to remain relevant on domestic policy and unsure what to do overseas.