Obama the Familiar

by William Voegeli

The state of the union is . . . well, it’s complicated. It’s a union of 317 million people, after all. Whatever may be said about the economic, social, or international state of the union, however, its political state was well described by journalist Ronald Brownstein as being closely but deeply, even bitterly, divided. Democrats’ and Republicans’ agendas are starkly dissimilar, but neither party’s leaders can advocate those agendas in ways that command a consensus among the electorate.

This state of affairs predated Barack Obama’s presidency, even his political career. Political history since Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 consists of Democrats seeking a mandate for activist government, over-interpreting their electoral victories as such mandates, being rebuked by voters who elect Republicans, who seek mandates for limited government and over-interpret their victories as such mandates, and are rebuked by voters who elect Democrats.

Obama ran for president in 2007 and 2008 on the premise there was a way out of this impasse: Democrats could have a great leap forward in their eternal quest for Scandinavian social democracy, even as America replaced bitter political divisions with civility and respect. There “is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America,” Obama said at the 2004 Democratic convention, in the speech that put a state senator on the national political map. In his first press conference as president he commended himself for treating congressional Republicans in a manner “that has been consistently civil and respectful.” But as William Galston of the Brookings Institution noted in 2009, Obama’s post-partisanship turned out to be entirely tonal rather than substantive.

Obama won reelection by promising not to be Mitt Romney, a promise he has kept. He was otherwise unforthcoming about what he would do if given a second term. In particular, he shed no light on his quest for a presidency that would be a milestone of political liberalism and of national reconciliation. He refuses to resolve the contradiction by becoming the ideologue MSNBC hosts want him to be, but also refuses the substantive triangulation that marked Bill Clinton’s response to Republicans’ victories in 1994.

In this sense the 2014 State of the Union address told us nothing we didn’t already know, and confirmed things we already did. Unless Democrats win back a House majority in November, which no one expects; retain a Senate majority; and that majority abolishes the filibuster, Barack Obama will have no important legislative victories the rest of his presidency. It is, at the same time, impossible to take him seriously when he says, in the second week of the sixth year of his presidency, “Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.” If there were many such opportunities to further this most recent defining challenge of our time, the president would have availed himself of it sometime since January 2009. Wouldn’t he? In short, nothing about the nation’s politics is likely to change as a result of Obama’s speech, and nothing about America’s governance is likely to change in response to the president’s newest reiteration of a political vision that is as completely, uninspiringly familiar as he is.

— William Voegeli is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books and the author of Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State.

The Corner

The one and only.