The Corner

Obama: The Center Does Not Hold

I’m less harsh than my colleagues on Obama’s performance from the podium. I’m guessing most people found his delivery, as Ed Morrissey Tweeted last night, energetic and engaged rather than condescending and unpresidential. If anyone was still paying attention when he glared at Republicans at the end, I can’t imagine them being particularly offended by it.

The over-arching problem was that the speech made no sense. Through much of it, Obama adopted a small-bore Clintonian agenda of initiatives meant to address middle-class concerns. Fine as far as it goes. But it worked for Clinton because he was pushing back against a Republican-controlled Congress that was engaged in a massive over-reach. In this case, Obama is working in concert with a Democratic congress that — at his bidding — is still involved in massive over-reach. School uniforms and the V-chip would have gotten Clinton nothing if he had still been pushing his health-care overhaul. Similarly, the political effect of Obama’s smaller proposals — all poll-tested to the max, I’m assuming — will be washed away by the continuing opposition to his hugely unpopular health-care bill.

Even his poll-tested initiatives contradicted each other: All the government activism he plugged at the beginning of the speech had to make people wonder how he was going to accomplish his spending freeze, itself an exercise in political positioning.

It’s a sign of how lost he is that he invoked the “I didn’t explain clearly enough” defense on health-care — this from the guy whose every utterance has been hyped as brilliant, moving, and for the ages. By the end, the self-pity (it reminded me a little of that debate where Bush kept on saying the Iraq War is hard) and the dishonesty (it’s as if he didn’t bless all the back-room deals that have disgusted people) interacted in a toxic way. Here is a man check-mated by his own P.R., which created the otherworldly expectation that all the inherent difficulties of governing could be resolved in himself, and his blatant misreading of the electorate and his mandate.

One thing I found interesting at the end was the long stretch without any applause. That was refreshing and makes me wonder if some day a president will have the gumption to give a serious, thematic 15-speech with no applause lines. That could be a powerful break with the hour-long drudgery.

Anyway, the motto (rather disastrously) of Obama’s first year was that you don’t let a crisis go to waste. For Obama, Massachusetts is apparently a crisis that will go to waste, as he tries to throw an unconvincing veneer of Clintonism over the same, hulking agenda of government aggrandizement.

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