“You know,” President Barack Obama said near the end of his 2015 State of the Union address, “just over a decade ago, I gave a speech in Boston where I said there wasn’t a liberal America, or a conservative America; a black America or a white America — but a United States of America.” The president was referencing his keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when the relatively unknown senatorial candidate burst onto the national stage with a message of unity and, though he may not have said it outright, hope.
It was a stem-winder of a moment in Boston, but as Obama launched into his remembrance of things past inside the House chamber Tuesday night, he delivered his signature line with a wary air. It was as if the president wanted to acknowledge, at least for that moment, that so much of what was once his distinguishing message had been repeated so often, it was now something of a cliché.
The sense of sad resignation was, perhaps, understandable. The president, the Congress and the country were only two-and-a-half months removed from a midterm election that delivered the Senate to Republican control and increased the GOP majority in the House. “Pundits,” Obama said in his address, “pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered” on the promise of a unified America.
Obama was, by his own admission (and the setup line to the night’s only real zinger), a lame duck.
It’s a funny thing the United States does to itself ever since the passage of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution — the one that limits presidents to two elected terms. If a president wins a second election, and especially after the last congressional midterm, he is (and at this point, they’ve all been “he”) less interested in the approval of voters, and more interested in the judgment of history. Before the final electoral contest, a president could get things done because he had the power of a watchful electorate to hold Washington accountable; afterward, with no one who might be eying a political future paying the chief executive much attention, it was all noble gestures and foreign trips.
Or so it supposedly once was — when retail politics were thought to play a role in national elections. That is, before Citizens United.
Was money in politics a problem during the prior decade? Did voters feel wealthy interests drowned out their own voices? Did elected officials feel like their time on the job had become dominated by fundraising? Yes times three. But since the January 2010 Supreme Court decision that threw open the floodgates on unregulated campaign donations, each successive election has reflected the greater influence of large donors and corporate cash. And those elected — and the general electorate they supposedly represent — have noticed.
For voters, cynicism and resignation seem nearly universal. An Al Jazeera America/Monmouth University poll recently showed that 84 percent of those surveyed feel that “average American voters” don’t have enough influence over their elected representatives. Conversely, 75 percent feel wealthy campaign donors have too much influence. And numbers like that tend to self-replicate, with voters feeling less reason to go to the polls, and politicians feeling less need to appeal to non-voters.
But the situation those numbers represent may have changed the lame-duck dynamic, as well.
Observers of the Obama years could argue that the kind of diminished influence and Capitol Hill cold shoulder previously reserved for the end of a two-term presidency has been more or less the story since the 2010 midterms handed control of the House back to the GOP. Some of the blame for the frustration and stagnation goes to Republicans who made it a goal from the earliest days to limit Obama’s power (if not his tenure), sure — but, just as certainly, the administration, too, out of either public miscalculation or private will, tied its hands on a number of presumably popular initiatives.
So, it was funny, Tuesday night, to see television pundits practically get the vapors when they observed that Obama didn’t so much as mention the new Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. — forget a note of congratulations like the one the president sounded when Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, assumed the Speakership of the House in 2011. Obama was not acknowledging the new political reality, the TV talkers said.
Or was Obama just observing a different one?
“I know how tempting such cynicism may be,” said the president, referring to the punditocracy’s take on the young Obama’s vision of a united country, and a Washington that today looks more divided than ever. “But I still think the cynics are wrong.”
Obama recited a litany of snapshots — graduations from military academies, same-sex weddings, towns recovering from disasters, and communities mourning mass shootings and industrial disasters (mentioned, a tad vexingly, as if they were basically one and the same) — to illustrate what he called “the good, and optimistic, and big-hearted generosity of the American people.”
But he was, in his closing tone and in his earlier policy pronouncements, also drawing a picture of a Realpolitik that has shifted demonstrably since the callow candidate from Illinois riled up the party faithful in Boston a decade ago. Obama may have seemed like he was looking forward, but most of Tuesday’s address was, like the references to his DNC keynote, about defending the past.
The economy is now growing, the deficit is now shrinking, the U.S. is awash in cheap oil and gas. High school and college graduations are up, the numbers of uninsured are down, and there is “a new consumer watchdog to protect us from predatory lending and abusive credit card practices.”
“This is good news, people,” said Obama, deviating from his written text.
Should the GOP try to mess with that rosy picture, should they try to repeal the Affordable Care Act or defund the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the president made it clear in a voice perhaps more certain than in years prior, he was ready to use his veto power.
When it came to the future, to new policy initiatives like the ones rolled out in a series of public events over the last two weeks, incremental as so many of them might seem, did Obama really think he was talking about areas where he and the GOP could come together to craft new laws? Tax reforms that increase capital gains rates? Paid childcare and sick leave? Equal pay for women? A higher minimum wage and lower mortgage premiums? A free community college education?
These programs might all find a warm place in the hearts of most voters, but it will be a cold day in a D.C. August before most of this gets a vote in the Republican-controlled Congress.
The only initiative mentioned (and only obliquely, mind you) by Obama that most would agree has a chance of passage this session is the Trans Pacific Partnership — a massive trade deal known to critics as “NAFTA on steroids” — hardly a core concern of most rank-and-file Americans, but a top priority for big donors hovering over both sides of the aisle.
And then there was the Commander in Chief’s call for a war powers vote on the military campaign against the Islamic State (or ISIL, as the administration typically calls it).
It was legacy polishing of a sort, but a very odd sort by an older measure.
For foreign policy, the expected province of lame-duck presidents, a plea for fast-tracking a Leviathan of a trade deal, and a demand that Congress take a stand on the country’s next war. On the domestic front, intricate, small-bore reforms for the next two years, and a threat to veto anything that messes with what was passed in the last six.
The foreign policy stuff will be for those who need to raise campaign cash, to featherbed their next job or to stake out a position for the next election. But the domestic agenda, that was for the president.
True, many Democrats could benefit next cycle from siding with Obama on this set of populist, popular initiatives, but many believe those Democrats — and the president — would have done well championing these issues before the last election (or the two before that, for that matter). And more to the point, what’s in it for the lame duck?
In a sense, Obama explained it himself Tuesday. While he asked for a politics that spent “less time drowning in dark money,” he knew that was now someone else’s problem. For him, it was a look back to the themes of his 2004 convention speech; for while he has had greater personal accomplishments in the ensuing years, he perhaps never captured hearts and minds the way he did that night.
That, of course, was before either presidential campaign, before the appointment of a Wall Street-friendly cabinet or the long, drawn-out and inevitably unsatisfying debate over health care reform. It was before six more years of foreign wars and deadly drone strikes. It was before the U.S. public realized no one of consequence would ever be prosecuted for tanking the economy or torturing detainees.
And it was before the Citizens United decision made it so candidates didn’t really have to worry much about any of that come election day.
But there are no more election days for Obama, so his thoughts drift elsewhere.
“I still believe that we are one people,” the president said. And why shouldn’t he? One people can probably come together around the hopeful Obama — both of 2004 and of Tuesday’s speech — without having to pull apart over the friction and failures of the times between. They can feel good about cheap gasoline and they can feel good about the promise of better jobs, as fleeting as those things might be. In the end, it may not be certain what this people can take to the bank, but perhaps there is something aspirational to leave to history.
For Obama, he can continue to talk about what’s ahead, but the truth is, most of his legacy is already in the rear view mirror. “We are still,” the president said, “more than a collection of red states and blue states.” For him, this phrasing serves as a Proustian madeleine, a taste of a time when there was more promise than compromise in his story. But for the United States of America that will have to grow in the time after the Obama presidency, it will prove even harder to make a meal of nostalgia than it did hope.