It’s hard to believe that was only President Barack Obama’s sixth State of the Union address. It feels like he’s given so many more. Maybe that’s because the man seems to be constantly talking. And talking. The talking is the background noise of much of the last decade, auditory wallpaper that seems to line the corridors of everyday life.
And when he talks, he’s often talking about himself — particularly about things he’s said on other occasions when he was talking. Like many liberals today, Obama has a particular weakness for the logical fallacy known as the argument from authority, and you know he is about to invoke his favorite authority when he begins a sentence, “As I said before.” As if there are large swaths of people who say, “Oh, he said it before, so it must be true.”
Indeed, in this week’s State of the Union address, which drew the lowest TV ratings in 15 years, he dedicated the climax to quoting himself from 10 years ago. For those of us paying attention — and there aren’t many of us left — it was a tedious trip down memory lane. Once more we got to hear how he believes there isn’t “a liberal America or a conservative America, a black America or a white America, but a United States of America.”
Blah, blah, blah and, as I said before, blah.
Once again, we heard how much he hates cynicism and partisanship, defining cynicism and partisanship in his own special way: disagreement with Barack Obama. The president denies this, of course. He said Tuesday night: “Understand , a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine.”
But if the president actually believed that, he would have governed that way when his party had total control of Congress.
And yet, prior to the great “shellacking” of 2010, Obama governed as if the Republicans were at best a nuisance. When Republicans expressed concern over the partisan nature of the stimulus, he responded, “I won.”
“We don’t mind Republicans joining us,” he said on another occasion, with all the magnanimity he could muster. “They can come for the ride, but they gotta sit in back.”
On his health care bill, the time for debate was always over — when he had the votes.
And when Republicans had a historic victory in the 2014 midterms, largely by running against Obama and his record, the president responded by unilaterally sidestepping Congress on every issue he could, from Cuba and Iran to carbon emissions standards and immigration.
This is Obama’s real understanding of “bipartisanship;” it is a political hack’s cudgel to unleash on your opponents, not a tool for governing. Diplomacy, Will Rogers once said, is the art of saying “nice doggie” until you can find a rock. Obama has a similar definition for gassy sound bites about cynicism.
His admirers see his speeches as ornate cathedrals of rhetoric when they are more like the kitsch from a TGI Friday’s, recycling old license plates and “gone fishin’” signs for that “authentic” feel. And just as every TGI Friday’s pretends it’s unique by adding a few bits of “flare” to the servers’ suspenders, what they dish out is always the same warmed-over swill drenched in cheesiness. So it is with Obama’s speeches.
Likewise with his policies. Before the financial crisis, Obama ran on “investing” in education, health care, renewable energy, infrastructure and so on. After the financial crisis hit, presumably our needs changed, but not Obama’s agenda. Suddenly, what America needed to do to respond to the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression was to again “invest” in education, health care, renewable energy and infrastructure.
And now that the “shadow of crisis has passed,” as he announced on Tuesday, the same investments are needed. Why? Because he said it before, of course.
The same holds true with his foreign policy agenda. As a candidate, Obama vowed that we needed to pull back from the war on terror. After the rise of the Islamic State and the metastasizing of jihadist terror around the world, we must stay the course.
Even when events deviate from the president’s well-worn script, what matters is that the script never change so Obama can keep talking and talking and talking.
Jonah Goldberg is a columnist for Tribune Media.