President Obama delivers his annual State of the Union address Tuesday night on Capitol Hill. (The Associated Press)

If you expected an excessively long State of the Union address, a disingenuous defense of Obamacare and small-ball unilateral moves, you were not disappointed. On the other hand liberals can’t be that thrilled either.

Not even a good speech writer could conceal the contradiction at the heart of President Obama’s presidency, and thereby, of his speech. He has been president for five years, identifies inequality as the central problem and concedes it has gotten worse:

Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better.  But average wages have barely budged.  Inequality has deepened.  Upward mobility has stalled.  The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead.  And too many still aren’t working at all.

That sounds like a GOP ad against the president. Nevertheless, with the enormity of this problem his proposed solutions are puny  and counterproductive. They grow the government, but there is no mention of the need to re-instill behaviors and institutions (like the family) that are the key to escaping poverty.

Think about his big idea for a moment: Government contractors, a disproportionate number who live in the D.C. metropolitan are going to get a minimum wage hike, which will mean we’ll be paying extra money for government work in those states that have weathered the Obama economy very well. (Virginia’s unemployment rate is 5.2 percent; In Maryland it is 6.1 percent.) Both states have Democratic governors. This is the face of cronyism masquerading as high-minded concern for the poor. It is also a grossly inefficient means of fighting poverty and inequality.

Stuck like glue to the war- on-women rhetoric, he tried to make a hike in the minimum wage a help-the-women plan. (“This year, let’s all come together – Congress, the White House, and businesses from Wall Street to Main Street – to give every woman the opportunity she deserves.”) In fact, men have suffered more and longer term unemployment in Obama’s economy. (His statistic on women earning only 77 percent of what men earn is outdated and just wrong.)

Moreover, in fast-forwarding past the Obamacare rollout debacle, he reinforced the perception he’s learned nothing about the limitations and inherent problems with big government. His biggest government scheme flopped and now he wants lots of little government schemes, some of which haven’t worked after decades of trying. He seemed bizarrely unwilling to acknowledge the problems his plan has caused, pretending as if it is simply a given that it has “fixed” healthcare.

On education, for example  he sounded as though he was entirely ignorant of reams of research on the paucity of results from Head Start. There he was, again, touting “high quality early education.” His rhetoric was so bland at times that it was devoid of meaning. (“Opportunity is who we are.  And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise.”) His announcement that Vice President Joe Biden was assigned to work on job training programs seemed, well, sad and lame. He only seemed to get engaged when talking about unemployment insurance, hardly a growth measure.

One was struck throughout the speech by how cramped his vision is. Essentially his entire presidency is boiling down to an ad hoc group of federal spending programs and defense of a healthcare plan that is disliked, doesn’t do what was promised and doesn’t help millions of the people whom are precisely the ones he says he is concerned about, who find Obamacare still too expensive or don’t qualify because they are below the poverty line and not Medicaid eligible. Moreover, his defense seems now to be that it is the only means of protecting people from rate hikes for pre-existing illnesses. Does he know Republicans have plenty of plans to solve that without the rest of the Obamacare mess? Evidentially he hasn’t. (“I know that the American people aren’t interested in refighting old battles.  So again, if you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, and increase choice – tell America what you’d do differently.”) That his defense came more than 50 minutes into the speech suggests it’s not the winning issue he used to insist it would be.

Indeed, the entire speech seemed like a cut and paste of old State of the Union speeches with a late rewrite, as if the White House figured out that “opportunity” (the GOP term) polls better than “inequality”(the base’s favorite). As a result, the speech lacked both drive and distinctiveness.

More promising was his effort to tie immigration to economic growth, one of the chief features that will attract GOP support. (“Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades.”) It was however so devoid of content one suspects he now understands the less he says the better.

As for foreign policy, he again gave himself a pat on the back for getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan, ignoring the turmoil in the Middle East and the collapse, specifically, of Iraq. He talked about taking America off war-footing even as he conceded al-Qaeda is spreading throughout North Africa and the NSA is needed to do “the vital work of our intelligence community.” He offered the false choice between “open-ended” deployment of ground troops (who precisely is for that?!) and retrenchment.

As for Iran, he was in full appeasement mode, revealing the intellectual inconsistency of his Iran policy. “The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible.  But let me be clear: If this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it.  For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed.” A nuclear-armed Iran used to be “unacceptable”; now preventing that is a “goal.”

His foreign policy remarks aptly convey his lack of interest in world leadership and conviction that avoidance of conflict is his highest duty. You’d never guess as many as 200,000 Syrians are dead and Bashar al-Assad is firmly in power. (“American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated, and 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.”) The killing by conventional means goes on unabated. In Tehran, Damascus and Moscow tyrants are laughing.

The president, polls tells us, is not only suffering a dearth of support for his job performance, but is now personally unpopular. It is hard to see how this speech changes the latter. He seemed passionless. Could he be conscious he was serving up a load of cold leftovers? Gone was any hint of high-mindedness that characterized his first State of the Union, when he promised a “new foundation.” Gone is the lyricism for which liberals swooned in 2008 and to a lesser extent in 2012. In its place are a list of half-measures and forced anecdotes about Obamacare.

Conservatives  may be irritated and/or angry after sitting through that. The president ‘s own policies in their eyes have made the economy more sluggish and inequality greater. Now he comes alone with simply more of the same. This is the face of liberal statism — vapid, exhausted, and defensive. But they should have some empathy for Democrats. This is the best they’ve got.


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