As one who has been watching presidential State of the Union messages since the Eisenhower years, and has read a great many of them in historical research, I am conditioned to think of the SOTU as a serious occasion that lends itself to important policy formulations, and as the president’s night. I don’t believe in a reply by the other party and, whatever criticisms I may have of the incumbent, I always hope he will do well and uplift the country and impress the world. Usually, it has been a good address, and, occasionally in American history, it has been momentous. In 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt, almost a year before Pearl Harbor, but just ten days after telling the nation that America “must be the great arsenal of democracy,” and two months after winning American presidential history’s only third term, said in the SOTU address that “we must always be wary of those who with sounding brass and tinkling cymbal would preach the ‘ism’ of appeasement.” A year later, just a month after the U.S. entered World War II, he stunned the world, and roused the incredulity of Hitler himself, when he revealed American war-production targets (all of which were exceeded). While prepared to fear the worst, it was in this spirit that I tuned in to President Obama’s address last week, listening with particular attention because my friend Neil Cavuto had invited me to comment on it on Fox Business News.
Readers are entitled to candor: Though I sugared it a bit for the television viewers, I thought the speech was a disaster and an embarrassment. The president showered down on us a sequence of whoppers so astounding I thought at times that, in Margaret Thatcher’s phrase, “my ears were deceiving me.” The unmitigated shambles of his health-care reform, which has failed to deprive scores of millions of Americans of any insurance coverage only because the schedule of its application has been altered, he represented as a great leap forward for the average person. The president who demeaned his great office by padding around the Copenhagen environmental conference of 2009 (the most inane and redundant conference of national leaders in world history), trying to drum up a $100 billion annual fund of conscientious reparation to underdeveloped countries because of the contribution the economically advanced world had made to global warming, retreated to the more ambiguous menace of “changing climate” that was causing droughts and floods in various American states that his administration would alleviate. In the meantime, his countrymen could repose in confident serenity because “every four minutes a solar panel [is being] pounded into place by a worker whose job cannot be outsourced.” No, Mr. President, it may be a revelation to you, but not to most of your listeners, that in situ manual labor cannot be outsourced.
He exhorted the Congress to “send me legislation that protects taxpayers from footing the bill for a housing crisis ever again and keeps the dream of homeownership alive for future generations.” A little specificity about what sort of bill he had in mind would have been welcome. Why not just pass a law that everybody had to be rich, healthy, and of pleasant disposition, as well as physically well-favored and preternaturally intelligent? Violence and its victims would be addressed by his pledge, “with or without Congress, to help stop tragedies from visiting innocent Americans in our movie theaters, in our shopping malls, or schools.” Mr. Obama’s opposition to murder is not at issue, but this was an occasion to give the country, as he claimed to be doing, a plan of action. To those curious about his policy prescription, answer came there none.
These clangers were a mere sorbet before the foreign-policy feast of revisionism that was the full metal jacket of the speech. Thus, “American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated.” This was the president’s spin on the opéra bouffe of sending naval forces of retribution to Syrian waters with public orders to rain down cruise missiles after the Assad regime gassed its own people; then abdicating the powers of the commander-in-chief to the Congress; then — after Secretary of State John Kerry’s reassurance that the application of force would be “unbelievably small,” and seeing that the whole fatuous waffle was about to be pitched by the legislators the president was addressing — grasping like a drowning man the raft offered by that pillar of international law Vladimir Putin to supervise the unverified destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons. No matter; “we will continue to work with the international community to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve — a future free of dictatorship, terror, and fear.” I doubt that his congressional listeners were more than casually preoccupied with the deserts of the Syrians, but I do not dare imagine that the great American people deserves this pious bunk.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.