Applauding our scarred and hobbled union

Honoring Cory Remsburg captured Obama'€™s address —€” and the whole tawdry affair

January 30, 2014 11:00AM ET
First lady Michelle Obama applauds as Army Ranger Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg is acknowledged by President Barack Obama during the State of the Union address on Tuesday.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Barack Obama concluded his State of the Union address Tuesday night with an encomium to Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger almost killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan on his 10th — yes, 10th — deployment.

"For months, he lay in a coma," Obama said. "Over the years, he’s endured dozens of surgeries and procedures, and hours of grueling rehab every day ... He’s learned to speak again and stand again and walk again — and he’s working toward the day when he can serve his country again."

Remsburg, scarred by war, was of course present at the speech, to serve as one of those human props that have become a standard trope of the annual presidential address. The whole august assembly leaped to its feet and honored Remsburg's valor and determination with a 90-second ovation. "Like the Army he loves," Obama said, "like the America he serves, Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit."

The advertised theme of Obama's address had been social and economic opportunity, and the president duly mentioned some dozen proposals — upgrading infrastructure, funding pre-K programs, raising the minimum wage, assigning Vice President Joe Biden to make sure federal job training programs train — meant to strengthen America's "ladders of opportunity." "Opportunity is who we are," Obama said at the heart of his speech. "And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise."

But in the end it became clear that Cory Remsburg is who we are, that Cory Remsburg is the state of the union. “Men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy,” the president said. Yet we can still achieve our ideals “if we summon what is best in us, the way Cory summoned what is best in him.” Listening to this speech, it became apparent that Cory Remsburg is also the Obama presidency, hobbled and half-blinded by disastrously bad political judgment. 

Obama stepped to the podium with a 43 percent approval rating. Not since Richard Nixon has a president rated so poorly at this stage of his second term.

A constrained, insipid speech

Obama stepped to the podium with a 43 percent approval rating. Not since Richard Nixon has a president rated so poorly at this stage of his second term. It is this fact that accounts for the chirpy tone, anodyne rhetoric and unobjectionably vague proposals of Obama’s speech. It was a "please don't hate me" appeal, a flight from controversy, an upbeat, insubstantial litany of inoffensive ideas designed to charm Americans into disliking Obama a little less so that his party can hold on, however tenuously, to its small Senate advantage. Though the president did briefly call out the bullheaded obstruction of congressional Republicans, he chose not to harp on it, for he has evidently given up hope of surmounting the GOP blockade. Obama can do little more than hold the line, and he can hold the line only if Democrats maintain their Senate majority though the upcoming midterm elections. That prospect is rather unlikely, however, unless the president pulls up his weak approval numbers

Obama brought upon himself the circumstances requiring such a constrained, insipid speech. The scandal of his IRS targeting tea-party activists suggested that his administration was either corrupt or mismanaged. Had he honored his campaign pledge to restore the civil liberties eroded in George W. Bush’s war on terror, Edward Snowden would not have had evidence of the NSA’s massive violations of the Fourth Amendment to leak. The Afghanistan surge was an ultimately ineffective face-saving operation that sent more than 1,000 Cory Remburgs to early graves — an operation that his then–secretary of defense openly doubts he really believed in. Finally, the catastrophically inept rollout of the Affordable Care Act has sown doubt in the electorate about Obama's honesty and competence to govern. Vehement Republican opposition, which has hampered implementation of the law at every level and stage, ought to have been a predictable consequence of ramming through transformative legislation along strictly partisan lines during a period of dire economic emergency. Yet the Obama administration seems to have been surprised to discover that there is more to governing than mustering the votes to pass a bill, and has dealt awkwardly with organized partisan resistance. Even those aspects of implementation fully within the administration’s control, such as the HealthCare.gov website, have been botched.

If the Affordable Care Act — Obama’s chief legacy — is to survive at all, the president must now cut a pleasant public figure, and that’s what we saw him do Tuesday night. And that’s why he finished by honoring the can-do patriotic grit of a wounded war hero. It was the safest imaginable rhetorical choice, the sentimental political equivalent of a basket of kittens.      

The New Yorker's John Cassidy saw something more in Obama's choice to conclude with a paean to Remsburg: "an attempt to bridge the gaping chasm between politics and political decision-making as experienced by its practitioners in the nation’s capital and by the grunts out there in the factories, offices, and Army battalions." But what a bizarre way to do that! Remsburg was almost killed in the eighth year of a war that had long ago met its stated objective — to remove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. The political decision making that led the sergeant to a 10th tour of duty was questionable at best, and it was experienced by thousands of its practitioners on the ground as the end of life as they knew it, as agony and as death.

Blogger and Obama supporter Andrew Sullivan wrote, "The metaphor of the soldier slowly, relentlessly, grindingly putting his life back together was a powerful one for America," and it’s hard to disagree. The state of our union is wounded, questionable political judgment is to blame, yet we slog on bravely anyway. But that’s not what Sullivan seems to be saying. He sees Remsburg’s valiant, implacable will as an analogy for Obama’s own heroic persistence in the face of adversity.

Maybe he’s right. It’s true that the vigor and brightness of this year’s small-bore State of the Union address attests to a certain unflappability, focus and drive in the president. And it was produced under tough conditions, required by the fact that Obama has been wounded in action, shot by himself in the foot.

Will Wilkinson blogs about American politics for The Economist.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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