Obama’s State of the Union drives conservatives crazy

State Of The Union
President Obama delivering his State of the Union address Tuesday night. Photo (cc) by NASA HQ.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

There’s plenty of fulminating in conservative media circles today over President Barack Obama’s unabashedly liberal State of the Union address.

Some of it is offered in world-weary tones suggesting that, once again, the grown-ups have to explain to the kids that the president doesn’t know what he’s talking about. “Mr. Obama’s income-redistribution themes are familiar,” The Wall Street Journal editorializes, “though they are amusingly detached from the reality of the largest GOP majority in Congress since 1949.”

Some of it is angry. “The president continues to count on and to exploit the ignorance of many of our fellow citizens,” thumps Scott Johnson of Power Line.

And some of it is just petulant. Breitbart’s Ben Shapiro concludes a long adolescent rant about Obama with this unmemorable line: “the state of his union sucks.”

Leave it to David Frum of The Atlantic, though, to explain what might have really been going on Tuesday night. A former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, Frum is the closest thing we’ve got these days to a moderate Republican commentator. And he thinks Obama was aiming his proposals — tax hikes for the rich, tax cuts for the middle class and new governmental benefits such as free community college — at an audience of one: Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“The intent, pretty obviously, is to box in his presumptive successor as head of the Democratic Party,” Frum writes. “Every time the president advances a concept that thrills his party’s liberal base, he creates a dilemma for Hillary Clinton. Does she agree or not? Any time she is obliged to answer, her scope to define herself is constricted.”

The effect, Frum predicts, will be to push the pro-business Clinton to the left and thereby hand an opportunity to the Republican presidential aspirants.

Whatever Obama’s motivation, there’s no question that his demeanor was that of a conquering hero rather than a weakened president facing the first all-Republican Congress of his tenure.

“Obama delivered an hour-long defense of his policies that at times sounded like a victory lap,” is how David Nakamura puts it in his lead story for The Washington Post. In The New York Times, Michael D. Shear calls Obama “confident and at times cocky.” Matt Viser of The Boston Globe says the president was “confident, brash, and upbeat.”

If nothing else, Obama demonstrated that he understood the atmospherics of the State of the Union. It’s a TV show, with all the entertainment values that implies. And thus there was no need for him to acknowledge the Democrats’ brutal performance in the November elections, or that the proposals he offered Tuesday have no more chance of passing than, say, Canadian-style health care. He had the podium, and the Republicans could applaud or not.

The timing was right for Obama as well. With the economy finally showing real improvement, the president’s job-approval ratings are up a bit. An ABC News/Washington Post poll puts Obama at 50 percent approve/44 percent disapprove, while an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey has him at 46 percent approve/48 percent disapprove. Meanwhile, the public detests Congress as much as ever.

As for how the State of the Union was received, that’s a little harder to figure out. The only survey I’ve seen, from CNN/ORC, shows that 51 percent of viewers had a “very positive” reaction to Obama’s speech and 30 percent were “somewhat positive.” That’s sounds like a big thumbs-up until you look more closely at the numbers. It turns out that 39 percent of those surveyed were Democrats and just 20 percent were Republicans — a reflection of who watched the speech, not of public sentiment as a whole.

Another way of looking at that, though, is that Obama knew he was speaking to a friendly audience — not in Congress, but at home, as Democrats were far more likely to tune in than Republicans. So why not use the occasion to energize his supporters — and drive his enemies to distraction?

Obama’s detractors at Fox News were fairly restrained Tuesday night and online this morning. But you can be sure Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, et al. will be at it tonight. Meanwhile, consider this, from Charles Hurt of The Washington Times: “President Obama dedicated his State of the Union address to illegal aliens, college students and communist Cuba. In other words, all those imaginary supporters he claims to be hearing from ever since the actual American electorate denounced him, his party and his policies in last year’s beat-down election.”

More to the point, John Podhoretz writes in the New York Post that “in the most substantive speech he’s given in a long time, he has committed his presidency toward policies that have no hope of a serious hearing from the legislatures whose job it is to turn policies into law.”

Obama knows that, of course. The real message of the State of the Union was that the 2016 campaign has begun. Having long since concluded that the Republicans won’t compromise with him, the president delivered a political speech, aimed electing a Democratic president and Congress.

Bush speechwriter: A “disaster” for Republicans

David Frum

Later this week I’ll be writing more about the historic health-care bill passed by the House on Sunday night. For now, though, a few semi-connected observations.

1. If you read nothing else on the politics of health-care reform, you must read this blog post by David Frum, a Republican strategist and former speechwriter for George W. Bush. Frum doesn’t like the bill; he thinks it’s too expensive and will harm businesses. But he is withering in his criticism of the Republican leadership for its take-no-prisoners approach to legislation that is, he asserts, moderate at its core and based on Republican ideas.

“Conservatives and Republicans today suffered their most crushing legislative defeat since the 1960s,” he begins. “It’s hard to exaggerate the magnitude of the disaster.” He continues:

At the beginning of this process we made a strategic decision: unlike, say, Democrats in 2001 when President Bush proposed his first tax cut, we would make no deal with the administration. No negotiations, no compromise, nothing. We were going for all the marbles. This would be Obama’s Waterloo — just as healthcare was Clinton’s in 1994.

Only, the hardliners overlooked a few key facts: Obama was elected with 53% of the vote, not Clinton’s 42%. The liberal block within the Democratic congressional caucus is bigger and stronger than it was in 1993-94. And of course the Democrats also remember their history, and also remember the consequences of their 1994 failure.

Every line is quotable, so by all means read the whole thing. But he is especially strong on the strategic error Republicans made in following the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, noting that not only do they want Democrats to fail, but, fundamentally, they want Republicans to fail, too. Why? It’s good for business.

2. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman today connects the dots between opposition to health-care reform and race. It’s not hard: All he has to do is quote former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who recently said passage would be as harmful to Democrats as civil-rights legislation was in the 1960s. [See correction below.]

Gingrich’s clear message was that white opposition to racial justice was good for the Republican Party, and happy days are here again. And Krugman offers a few other choice examples as well.

The racial subtext to health-care reform has been right below the surface all along. Let’s not forget that South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson, who bellowed “You lie!” at President Obama last September, has a long and foul history of involvement in Confederate causes. This weekend, the tea-party protesters included someone holding up a racially charged poster of Obama as a voodoo doctor (I’ve lost track of where I found it, but if you’ve got a link, send it along), and of some flinging the N-word at Congressman John Lewis, a legendary civil-rights leader. (Homophobic slurs were directed at Congressman Barney Frank as well.)

You can’t even bring this stuff up without being criticized for characterizing a group based on the actions of a few, and I do understand that argument. But if anyone on the scene tried to stop or shout down these knuckle-draggers, their efforts have gone unrecorded.

3. As the media play their favorite parlor game of picking winners and losers, they ought to consider that the biggest loser of all might prove to be Congressman Steve Lynch of South Boston.

Lynch, as we know, announced his opposition to the Senate bill last week. No surprise there — a lot of House Democrats didn’t like it, which is why they came up with the complex strategy of approving the Senate bill, then approving a set of amendments to send back to the Senate.

But Lynch backed himself into a corner with strong language that made it almost impossible for him to shift. By Sunday, the emotional momentum had clearly turned, and Lynch had nowhere to go. He wound up being one of just two House members to vote against the Senate bill and for the amendments — a move that may have put him on the “right” side both times, but that was transparently craven. (So why did the “yes” tally rise by just one, from 219 to 220? Believe it or not, someone voted “yes” on the Senate bill and “no” on the amendments. Go figure.)

The talk today is whether a progressive Democrat might challenge Lynch in the primary. That’s happened before without much effect. This time, though, Lynch could face an opponent who can raise money from the netroots, and without his erstwhile friends in organized labor to drag him over the finish line.

Sounded like a good idea at the time, eh, Congressman?

Correction: Krugman relied on a Washington Post story, and the Post has now published a correction. Gingrich says he was referring to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society social programs and the Vietnam War, not to civil-rights legislation.

Photo of David Frum via Wikimedia Commons.