It has long been a theme of the Obama presidency, buffeted by bad economic winds and scandals of its own incompetence, that the only thing holding Obama back is the dark specter of cynicism. If only Congress could dream bigger and harder, and with more of other people’s money, everything would be going swimmingly. America is pretty cool, the president concedes, but consumed by a debilitating lack of faith in him that prevents it from gliding smoothly in his stream— a silly, pessimistic pilot fish spurning his giant, unstoppable force. Obama implored America to grab his inspiring coattails in a section of State of the Union that has no doubt spiked mouthguard sales for those of us able to recognize its teeth-grinding irony.
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, and 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, and naïve, and 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. I believe this because over and over in my six years in office, I have seen America at its best. I’ve seen the hopeful faces of young graduates from New York to California; and our newest officers at West Point, Annapolis, Colorado Springs, and New London. I’ve mourned with grieving families in Tucson and Newtown; in Boston, West, Texas, and West Virginia. I’ve watched Americans beat back adversity from the Gulf Coast to the Great Plains; from Midwest assembly lines to the Mid-Atlantic seaboard. I’ve seen something like gay marriage go from a wedge issue used to drive us apart to a story of freedom across our country, a civil right now legal in states that seven in ten Americans call home.
So I know the good, and optimistic, and big-hearted generosity of the American people who, every day, live the idea that we are our brother’s keeper, and our sister’s keeper. And I know they expect those of us who serve here to set a better example.
So the question for those of us here tonight is how we, all of us, can better reflect America’s hopes. I’ve served in Congress with many of you. I know many of you well. There are a lot of good people here, on both sides of the aisle. And many of you have told me that this isn’t what you signed up for — arguing past each other on cable shows, the constant fundraising, always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision.
Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different.
Understand — a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine.
A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.
A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues, and values, and principles, and facts, rather than “gotcha” moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives.
A better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter, and spend more time lifting young people up, with a sense of purpose and possibility, and asking them to join in the great mission of building America.
If we’re going to have arguments, let’s have arguments — but let’s make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country.
You’re reading that right. In just a few short paragraphs, he decries constant fundraising, politically cynical opposition (his characterization) to gay marriage, pandering to one’s base, demonizing adversaries, and capitalizing on gotchas and trivial gaffes. He is laboring under the delusion that he is a very different man than he is.* Despite a brief concession that he does, indeed, have some vague personal flaws, there is no suggestion that the problem with his vision and his inability to deliver on it might lie in part with him. Perhaps the vision was naive. Perhaps he was careless in having absolutely no plan for executing it once in office. Perhaps the benefits he reaped from partisanship and division and fake controversies proved too useful for reelection to resist in favor of the new politics of that old speech. Perhaps, in the face of a completely different Congress created by his inability to deliver, governing requires something more than rehashing an old speech and wishing to be back in a Boston auditorium enveloped in applause.
No, as usual. It’s you, America, not him.
His self-conception is of a man who is simultaneously nearly all-powerful and utterly stymied at every turn by the very smallest of routine disputes of American politics. Like the ignorant omniscience I’ve written about before, this impotent power absolves him of all responsibility while he congratulates himself for what he could have accomplished if not for you, America.
If indeed a benevolent and intelligent executive like Obama (as he sees himself) is unable to turn the clumsy machine of the federal government to righteous action, if the great uniter is indeed unable to bring about anything close to a new kind of politics, why is he surprised that Americans wonder then how much of their welfare should be put into the hands of this clumsy machine and its inept managers? The vision he proffered was that his presence would change things, and when that visions did not materialize, of course right people lost some faith in him and the institutions he’s constantly pitching as the solutions to our problems. That is how it should work.
We don’t have to get into an exhaustive list of examples. Let’s just take one. Obamacare was the president’s No. 1 priority, by any measure. For his legacy, for his personal ideology, for his vision of America, that’s what he chose to undertake in the depths of a historic economic downturn, at great electoral cost to his own party. The incentive to make sure the program was launched as smoothly as possible could not have been higher, and the administration had a well-advertised expertise and passion for domestic wonkery and technology. Easy breezy.
The Obama administration had three and a half years and roughly $1 billion to create a website that wasn’t an utter disaster, and it failed to do so. It had more than adequate resources and motivation, and it fell flat on its face in a manner so obvious the public couldn’t miss it.
The proper and logical response to an administration that has dramatically dropped the ball on merely building a website (albeit a complicated one) for its No. 1 priority is skepticism. When the administration says it wants to do “big” and “great” and “comprehensive” things, it is perfectly reasonable—responsible, even— to question how and whether it can do those things. This is not a malevolent force, but a necessary one. Had just one tech-savvy person in the Obama White House employed such skepticism before launching HealthCare.gov in a furious flurry of CYA, it would have spared itself.
But in the very expensive ashes of this very public (and slowly, slowly patched-together) failure, we found that there really wasn’t a plan for making it happen beyond passing a law that declared it would happen and giving speeches about how great it would be. There was not proactive planning or checking in with site architects. There was even active self-sabotage. In this project, as in many others, political considerations undermined the administration’s efforts, as regulations and specifications state and federal exchanges needed went unannounced to avoid 2012 pitfalls. After the fall of the site, the plan was to profess ignorance and blame others, neither of which did anything to regain public trust.
This section of Obama’s State of the Union makes it clear this is still the plan for most everything the president would like to accomplish. Announce Plan _____ would be super-keen and make everyone happy, make no plans for accomplishing Plan _____, subjugate success of Plan _____ to day-to-day political considerations, give speeches about how Plan ____’s awesomeness is being foiled by everyone else’s cynicism.
Frankly, I think the American public is far too easy on the federal government and its ability to accomplish anything well. We are a friendly people bent toward optimism even when it’s nearly ridiculous. Despite that, during Obama’s administration, faith in public institutions has fallen to all-time lows.
And, if this is what President Obama is offering in year six of this odyssey, the American people are right to respond with skepticism. That, and its more malevolent cousin, cynicism, are what he deserves.
Here, Obama dusts off the 2008 playbook and assumes his much-beloved posture as the adult in the room. The above-the-fray, pious advocate for good governance who just wants to do right by the American people. The optimistic outsider, untainted by cynicism, offering hope and change via the warm embrace of a better, more noble, form of politics. By delivering this lecture, Obama reveals himself as perhaps the most pathologically self-unaware human being inside the Beltway, which is saying quite a lot. He — Barack Obama — actually decried “constant fundraising” (the cherry on top came in the form of a DNC fundraising email, signed by Obama, blasted out nanoseconds after this very address concluded). The man who engineered weeks of hysterical fear-mongering about minuscule budget cuts now wants everyone else to stop appealing to Americans’ “basest fears.” The polemicist who once stated that conservatives support “dirtier air, dirtier water, [and] less people with health insurance,” and whose spokespeople compare Republicans to arsonists, kidnappers and suicide bombers, is lamenting demonization.
The candidate who ran on Big Bird and “binders full of women” is disappointed with others’ obsession with trivial gaffes and fake controversies. And the president who outspent his opponents by hundreds of millions of dollars over two cycles, and who established a SuperPAC after savaging SuperPACs a “threat to our democracy” has pronounced himself tired of “dark money” and ads that “pull us into the gutter.” The face-melting hypocrisy at play is so astounding that I genuinely can’t decide if it’s acute self-delusion or masters-level trolling.