It was inexorable: “It was American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program and rolled back parts of that program for the very first time in a decade. . . . If this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. . . . If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.” There are a few problems with this: President Obama had to be dragged by the scruff of the neck by both parties in Congress and by many other countries to do anything serious about Iran’s nuclear program, and his administration wavered and wobbled for years. The agreement it is negotiating is very soft, fragile, and tentative. John F. Kennedy’s only face-to-face meeting with the Soviet leadership, with Nikita Khrushchev at Vienna in 1961, was such a fiasco it brought on the Cuban missile crisis; Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and especially Nixon did a better job of negotiating with them. America is much less strong and credible under this president than under any of these others, and Iran is weaker, but at least Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev were sane in foreign-policy matters and weren’t threatening genocide on anyone, as the Iranian theocracy does over, as the president mistakenly referred to it, “Israel — a Jewish state that knows that America will always be at their side.” (Not under this administration they don’t.)
There were many lesser brainwaves and hallucinatory revelations: Americans were to take comfort that Joe Biden was going to “lead across-the-board reform of America’s training programs,” and that “big strides” have been made “in preparing students with the skills for the new economy . . . from Tennessee to Washington, D.C.” That’s North Carolina and Virginia, Mr. President, two states; what strides and what new economy — attaching solar panels? In the same mode of inspiriting his listeners, the president said that he would cure the “stagnant wages” that persist despite his claim to have reduced unemployment to the point where it was when he entered office, added manufacturing jobs for the first time since the 1990s, and made the U.S. the world’s preferred country for new investors. He said that he would do this by raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and inventing MyRA, a guaranteed savings bond, resting on precisely the “full faith and credit of the United States” that he claimed had been reduced by “rancorous debate” in the Congress (as if he were not responsible for much of it).
The president who was as sluggish as unfrozen cement about offshore drilling and fracking took credit for domestic oil production’s having crept ahead of imports, and for cutting the deficit to $650 billion (after increasing the national debt in five years from $10 trillion to nearly $18 trillion, in a country that had a money supply of about $1 trillion when he was inaugurated in 2009); promised to get women the same pay scale as men; to cap student-loan repayments at 10 percent of income, whatever the income or the size of the loan; to shut the prison at Guantanamo, which is a comfortable prison that he promised to close, through his original White House counsel, poor old Greg Craig, on January 21, 2009; and to press for the invention of “paper-thin material that’s stronger than steel.” Just as “Michelle has brought down obesity rates for the first time in 30 years” (how do we know this, but kudos to her for the effort), he would continue to pursue democracy in Tunisia, Burma, the Ukraine, and “across Africa” (this from the president who turned his back on protesters against Iran’s fraudulent election in 2009), because “on every issue the world looks to us.” No it doesn’t, Mr. President. It is a sign of America’s mighty achievement in leading the West to victory in the Cold War and establishing democracy as the world’s principal form of government, albeit with immense variances in its quality of application (and the U.S. is far from being a contemporary exemplar), and expanding the free-market economy, that the world does not look to the U.S. for much, except the cultural ravages of Hollywood. But it is also a sign of the decline of the material, moral, and cultural influence of the country in the last two presidencies.
I had to watch to the end, as I had promised to comment on it on television, and as the camera showed Mr. Obama, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, and Speaker Boehner and Vice President Biden, I thought wistfully of the corresponding, but incomparably more substantial people when I first watched these events, respectively: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, Sam Rayburn, and Richard Nixon. America will do better than what it got on this night — as a friend described it, “Obaminable” pablum. In a phrase of Charles de Gaulle’s, the United States is “crossing the desert” (and taking some of the world with it). It will get to the other side, of course, but the real state of the Union bears little resemblance to the treacle inflicted on us by the president last week.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at [email protected].