Normally, a President wants the media to spend a few weeks buzzing about the grand plans rolled out in a State of the Union speech. Instead, the media consensus has already written off last night’s speech as utterly forgettable. In this video, the Associated Press concludes that Barack Obama played small ball, and attempts to give him the benefit of the doubt, but they conclude that Obama has gone “from bold to bite-sized”:
John Dickerson asks, essentially, where’s the beef? After all of the hype, including a PR campaign to give people an inside look into how engaged Obama gets in drafting the SOTU, the product was a surprisingly wan effort:
In the lead-up to the speech, the president and his aides talked about how he was going to use the tools of his office—the pen and the phone—to address the challenges of the day since Congress would not. But, judging from his speech, you can’t do much with a pen and phone.
When the president outlined his executive actions, the biggest items were a modest effort to raise the minimum wage for companies with federal contracts, six additional manufacturing hubs, and an ill-defined savings instrument aimed at making it easier for lower-income Americans to sock away money. Those are hardly initiatives that amount to a “year of action.” The rest of his offerings were even smaller—cajoling CEOs, convening college professors, and cutting red tape. He put Vice President Biden in charge of improving the 47 government job-training programs.
It’s not that these are unworthy efforts. They’re just modest compared with the president’s stated goal, of reversing decades-long changes in the workforce brought about by global competition and technological innovation. Indeed, you can’t imagine a president asking Americans to assemble to hear this list of proposals if there wasn’t a tradition saying he had to.
Ron Fournier calls Obama a “diminished leader,” and doesn’t blame Americans if they’ve already tuned him out after this effort:
In what may be his last, best chance to revive a presidency that has fallen far short of its promise, Barack Obama unveiled his 2014 agenda Tuesday night: small-bore executive orders, studies, summits, and legislation, long-seasoned and stalled. “America does not stand still,” he said, “and neither will I.” …
It was a good speech about a modest agenda delivered by a diminished leader, a man who famously promised to reject the politics of “small things” and aim big—to change the culture of Washington, to restore the public’s faith in government, and to tackle enduring national problems with bold solutions. The night he sealed the Democratic nomination in 2008, candidate Obama looked forward to a day when future generations might say “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
Tuesday night was no such moment.
It was, instead, a moment in miniature: an executive order to raise the minimum wage for future federal contractors, and another to create “starter” retirement accounts; summits on long-term unemployment and working families; and scores of promises to “continue” existing administration programs.
From my reaction, which came from the transcript rather than the speech as delivered (which I missed due to a schedule conflict), I also note that the President has diminished in another way. He seems to have forgotten that he’s been President for five years, and that the problems he’s describing exist under his own policies:
Obama seems to think that he’s just arrived on the scene, but it has been his economic and regulatory policies for the past five years that produced this stalled economy and stagnation environment.
And what did Obama propose to solve this? The same policies that produced it — spending on supposedly shovel-ready public works, short-term gimmicky incentives and government programs, most of which have nothing to do with freeing capital to unlock job creation.
No one expected Obama to offer anything innovative or new, so it’s hardly a disappointment. But like his last few State of the Union speeches, it was largely a laundry list of priorities far out of touch with Americans who just want to get back to work.
Andrew Malcolm has the same reaction:
Obama has clearly run out of ideas. He’s recycling ones from his unremarkable address last year and even some distinct phrasings from his predecessor’s State of the Unions. He’s also taken to “small ball,” last week meeting to cut voters’ waiting times and last night offering a way for workers to save for retirement.
Ironic because Obama used to criticize Bill Clinton for seizing on small ideas to give the impression of meaningful activity. But great news for Obama’s opponents.
This is the historic fellow who arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue promising a radical transformation of American society. And now, thanks in large part to his own gaffes, scandals and political ineptitude, he’s reduced to dickering over voting lines and college loan interest rates. …
State of the Union addresses do not rescue doomed presidencies. But Obama had an opportunity to sketch a new, more positive path for the 1,087 days left on his White House lease.
Instead, Jay Leno referred accurately in his late-night monologue to the Obama administration as “lame Duck Dynasty.”
This was the Lame Duck entry speech … emphasis on the lame. Why bother to deliver this at all? He could have mailed it in to Congress literally rather than figuratively.