The State of the Union? The President Was Too Hyped to Care

President Obama after the State of the Union (January 2016 screenshot), © Susan Barsy
I was disappointed in President Obama’s final State of the Union address.  Though I am generally appreciative of the president, in this instance he did a real disservice to the nation, wasting a key opportunity to acknowledge the true condition of the land, the economy, and the citizens.

How refreshing it would be to hear a factual State of the Union address, where the essential aspects of our collective existence were candidly enumerated, realistically described.  Though thoroughly out of fashion, an address so styled would reassure Americans that the president sincerely cared about their pain and discontents, that the guy at the top identified with what they were experiencing.  Offering such recognition consistently and in a heartfelt way is only right, given that the prospects of many Americans are shrinking.  Particularly imperiled is the prospect that Americans will enjoy personal autonomy and independence: that they will stay free of debt, realize their potential, and, as they mature and grey, have enough to sustain themselves and their families.

Instead of frankly acknowledging the trade-offs that the government constantly makes for the sake of global supremacy and national pride, the President exhorted citizens to ’embrace change’ and take comfort in the fact that ‘The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth, period,’ and that ‘We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.’  Reasserting the vision that catapulted him to office in the first place (remember Change You Can Believe In?), President Obama urged Americas to have faith in the beneficent nature of change itself.   Even as he paid lip service to some of the nation’s glaring problems, his tone remained unduly up-beat and celebratory.  In the end, his platitudinous tone made me sad and uneasy.

Contrast his speech with Pope Francis’s somber eloquence when he similarly addressed a joint meeting of Congress last fall.  While the pope, too, paid homage to American dreams, his speech stood out for its moral discernment and honesty—the precision with which he outlined the great problems facing America and the world. His observations were at once compassionate and unflinching.  Perhaps it’s unfair to compare a pope and a president, but, in such a case, the president’s take on the nation comes off as almost callous, as willfully out of sync with the people he leads.

A Prisoner of the Bully Pulpit Breaks Free

Photomontage of Theodore Roosevelt (Courtesy of Cornell University Library via Flickr Commons)


Theodore Roosevelt, though a fine president in many ways, left behind one baleful legacy: the idea of the presidency as a ‘bully pulpit,’ by which he meant a superb vantage from which to preach to others about how the nation should be.  When you hear presidential candidates speaking confidently of the miraculous feats that will follow from their being elected, it’s the misleading cadences of a bully-pulpit preacher you’re hearing.


To an extent difficult for us to appreciate today, Roosevelt’s conception of the president as an active visionary was revolutionary, departing in significant ways from the executive role the Constitution laid out.  Our scheme of government assigns the president a few plain duties, which, given the size and scope of the government and its role in the world, constitute a staggering burden.  In addition to serving as the symbolic and ceremonial head of the nation, the president executes the laws, conducts foreign policy, commands the armed forces.  Presidents often function as party leaders, but their constitutional function is essentially one of interdependence, for a president cannot make a law, placing every president in that regard very much at the mercy of Congress.


During the first century of the nation’s life, presidents grappled with this limitation in various ways, but Teddy was the first to dare to act as though it didn’t exist.  He was determined to make the president the determining force in all things.  Like Satan—the most powerful angel in Milton’s celestial firmament—, he chafed at playing second fiddle; he longed to be God.  Suiting actions to words, Roosevelt broke the mold, becoming a media-oriented president intent on using his considerable intellect and celebrity to reshape the nation and govern Congress.  Initiative pulsated from the White House.  It was all very thrilling.  Moreover, it kept Roosevelt constantly in the spotlight, which was something he liked.


Since then, Roosevelt’s conception of the presidency has become our conception, too.  In what is a sad distortion of the Founders’ vision, we expect the president—a single person—to do the work that Congress should be doing.  This, in turn, leads to a confusion about where responsibility lies.  The American people spend more and more time agonizing over presidential choice, more and more time trying to decide which campaign promises and bold visions please them more.


It was clear from the start that Barack Obama sought to be an activist president in the Rooseveltian vein.  His entire campaign the first time around was based on the premise that he could “change Washington,” reorganize the business of politics, and define a new political epoch singlehandedly.  For much of his first term, he seemed at odds with the presidential role, chafing at its limitations and behaving as though his ability to extract specific laws from Congress was the sole yardstick later generations would measure him by.

Influencing Congress became his preoccupation.  Whether the issue was health care or the debt ceiling, President Obama spent much of his first term lecturing Congress and the public—chiding and exhorting the nation to embrace his vision for us.  His love of showing his mettle prompted him to become over-involved in fruitless wrangles whose results were properly the responsibility of a weak and recalcitrant Congress.  The “victories” so gained were costly indeed: witness a health-care bill ahead of its time that, regardless of its merits, heightened partisan rancor and left much of the nation resentful and unpersuaded.


As recently as January, the president’s bully-pulpit predilections were on full display, when he chose to use the State of the Union address to tell Congress its business rather than report candidly on governmental progress.  Yet, between then and now, Obama has seen the light about an activist presidency, about what a dead-end it is, how it takes a certain set of conditions to achieve.  In the meantime, he has racked up a steady tally of gains, showing himself to be very able in directing foreign affairs and the military.  And he retains the support of a large part of the electorate, who value his honesty and intelligence and see him as persistent, prudent, and humane.


Which brings us to the president’s recent acceptance speech.  Some listeners were disappointed; others found the speech a bit desperate or weak.  We all noticed a difference.  The bully-pulpit fervor we’ve grown so accustomed to was missing.

Instead, the President re-articulated his fundamental role as ‘the people’s sovereign’—the keeper of the people’s interest, uniquely entrusted to embody and articulate their general sentiments and needs.  This emphasis on the president’s traditional role as the national symbol of the people’s rule enabled the President to remind his listeners of their primary role as citizens, in a system in which his power is ‘from the people.’


Lacking the glitz and razzmatazz of his earlier speeches, the president’s speech that night was pitched in a lower key.  Its high points were not remarkable for policy specifics, but for their embrace of a more constitutionally sound notion of the presidency, one focused on executing the will of the people and the astute exercise of presidential duty.  The speech’s most important moment came when Obama said, “I’m not a just candidate for the presidency.  I am the president,” a simple declaration that eloquently accounted for his changed tone.

For a sitting president who a year ago styled himself an underdog, this embrace of experience and authority marked a great leap toward political maturity.  Scaling back the high-flown rhetoric and grand visions of which he has been so fond, the president has raised his ambitions in another way: making a bid for greatness by renouncing a view of office that offers self-gratification now.

Regardless of the continuing deep divisions in Congress, the nation can repose confidence in the seasoned president we have now.  All in all, it was a moment I rejoiced to see: a prisoner of the bully pulpit breaking free.

President Obama delivering his acceptance speech before the Democratic National Convention, Sept 6, 2012 (Screen shot courtesy of WTTW Channel 11 Chicago)

Top image: “Five hundred different views of Theodore Roosevelt,” from this source.
Bottom image: Screen capture of PBS Newshour coverage of the Democratic National Convention.

Be Our President, Please

Forget the polls: I woke up yesterday with the cold hard conviction that Obama will lose the presidency.  It was a moment when wishes dropped away, exposing a bleak vista shaped by the President’s own choices and style of proceeding.

If only he thought of his office differently, Obama would be far more popular than he is, and his reelection would be a certainty.  From the start, he has styled himself as an activist president rather than an executive duty-bound to stand as a symbol of the whole country and its legislatively expressed will.  His would not be a role secondary to the other leaders of his party.  No, from the outset Obama has positioned himself as one who, separate from all others, would push to redirect established institutions of power.  From the vantage of the White House, he would elevate the nation to a state that had previously eluded the whole governing community and other members of his party.

This vision has given free rein to the narcissism and paternalism that are aspects of Obama’s personality.  After a point, it doesn’t matter whether the president has a good heart or an intelligent grasp of policy: what matters is that, in his zeal to do more and be better than others, he is subverting the collaboration and interdependence on which the government is premised.

When Obama was first running in 2008, I was reluctant to believe Chicago friends who told me that he was famous for throwing fellow-Democrats under the bus.   Four years later, after watching Obama tirelessly lecture and upstage everyone else in his party, I’m ready to believe.  The latest instance was on Friday, when the president couldn’t wait to strike out in a new direction on immigration policy—a complex and divisive issue whose resolution warrants the whole voice and weight of Congressional authority.

Sadly, in arrogating to himself matters more appropriately left to Congress, Obama has foregone the chance to be a different kind of executive—one who embodies the authority of the government and symbolically represents the people as a whole.  By aiming to do less, Obama could do more to uplift and unite a beleaguered country.

Political Affections