Pundits wrestle with a State of the Union address overshadowed by war

White House photo

Previously published at GBH News.

The dichotomy at the heart of any State of the Union address was on full display Tuesday night. The president’s annual message to Congress is a major news event. Yet it is fundamentally a political exercise.

So when serious news from the outside world intrudes, cognitive dissonance ensues. That was surely the case during President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union as well as in the subsequent coverage.

How did the pundits handle it? For the most part, they treated it as two speeches — a sober, even stirring call to support the Ukrainian people as they fight desperately to hold off an unprovoked invasion by Russian forces, and a domestic-policy address aimed at shoring up Biden’s miserable poll numbers.

“It was as inspiring as any section of a State of the Union, in large part because it was about something bigger and more compelling than politics as usual,” wrote Washington post columnist Jennifer Rubin of Biden’s opening, which focused on Ukraine. “Moreover, it was a rare display of bipartisanship, and a reminder that in facing external threats we can rise to the occasion…. From there on out, bipartisanship receded.”

The real-news-versus-politics divide was particularly acute in the way the war in Ukraine and the State of the Union address were played on the front pages of our three leading newspapers. The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal all led with Ukraine. The Journal didn’t even place Biden’s address above the fold.

Originality was hard to find in my post-speech scan of the coverage. One exception was Ezra Klein of the Times, who noted that Biden did little — nothing, really — to prepare Americans for the economic effects of the tough sanctions that he and other Western leaders have imposed on the Putin regime.

“For all Biden’s resolve on Tuesday night, he did not try to prepare Americans to sacrifice on behalf of Ukrainians in the coming months, if only by paying higher prices at the pump,” Klein wrote. “Instead, he said, ‘my top priority is getting prices under control.’ That’s the tension Putin is exploiting.”

Divisions on the right were apparent in both the House chamber and in the subsequent commentary. During Biden’s speech, far-right Reps. Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene disgraced themselves by interrupting the president just as he was about to invoke the memory of his late son, Beau Biden, whose death from brain cancer may have been related to his exposure to toxic fumes while he was serving in the military.

Writing for the ultraconservative PJ Media site, Matt Margolis made the same point somewhat more artfully, criticizing Biden for talking about his dead son rather than the 13 American soldiers who were killed by terrorists during last summer’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. There was, Margolis said, “not a single word about the withdrawal” in Biden’s speech. “Not a single word to honor those who died because of his incompetence.”

At National Review, a more mainstream conservative publication, Dan McLaughlin praised Biden on Ukraine but dismissed the rest of his address, writing, “You could tell the pandemic is really and truly over when we saw a return to Democrats demonizing the pharma companies that gave us life-saving vaccines.”

McLaughlin also attempted to turn the Big Lie on its head, taking Biden to task for speaking out against voter-suppression efforts fueled by pro-Trump Republicans who dare not question the former president’s false assertions that he actually won the 2020 election. “This is hardly the first time Biden has cast doubt on the legitimacy of our elections,” McLaughlin wrote in a truly mind-bending line.

Meanwhile, Jonathan V. Last, writing for The Bulwark, a Never Trump conservative site, summarized the moment in a pre-speech assessment beneath a headline that read “The West Is Winning, Russia Is Losing, and Biden Is Doing a Good Job.”

Although Biden noticeably did not move to the center, doubling down on popular but stalled-out ideas such as a $15 minimum wage, child-care assistance and controls on drug prices, he nevertheless invoked the moderate, unifying appeal that carried him to victory over Trump.

David A. Graham of The Atlantic wrote that “rather than try to convince Americans not to believe what they’re feeling, or claim credit for things they don’t see, Biden offered them a promise that things are about to get better. To make the case, he tacked toward the middle — with a few pointed detours — delivering a speech that hews closer to the ‘popularist’ movement in the Democratic Party than to its more progressive contingent.”

“Popularism,” in case you’re unfamiliar with the term, is the idea that the Democrats should de-emphasize the more divisive aspects of their agenda in favor of those with broad support. Examples offered by Graham were Biden’s calls for more police funding and keeping kids in school during COVID-19 surges.

According to a snap poll conducted by CBS News, the speech was popular with those who were watching, with 78% saying they approved of his speech and just 22% disapproving. But, CBS cautioned, “As we’ve seen with previous presidents’ State of the Union speeches, those who watched tonight are more likely to be from the president’s own political party, boosting approval of the speech.”

In other words, whatever political benefit Biden receives from his address is likely to be short-lived. His popularity — and, thus, the Democratic Party’s prospects in the upcoming midterm elections — are likely to be grounded in matters that are largely beyond his control, such as the outcome of the war in Ukraine, the ongoing battle against COVID and the persistence of inflation in an otherwise strong economy.

For one night, though, the stage was his. It’s fair to say that he made the most of it.

Obama, Republicans agree: The State of the Union is Trump

The divider-in-chief. Photo (cc) 2015 by Michael Vadon.
The divider-in-chief. Photo (cc) 2015 by Michael Vadon.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

President Obama told a few jokes during his final State of the Union address. The best one, though, was so couched in the language of humility and high-mindedness that it flew right over everyone’s heads.

Claiming that one of his “few regrets” was that “the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” Obama said: “There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”

Obama surely knows as well as anyone that Abraham Lincoln’s election led directly to the Civil War. As for Franklin Roosevelt, here’s what he had to say about the one percent of his era: “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”

In fact, we live in divisive times—a moment when we can’t agree on issues ranging from gun control to climate change; when Republican representatives and senators Tuesday night couldn’t bring themselves to offer even tepid applause for Obama’s call for universal pre-kindergarten and “more great teachers for our kids.”

The unnamed guest at the State of the Union—and in South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s Republican response—was Donald Trump, who has emerged as the exemplar of that divisiveness, and a dangerous one at that. Defying all predictions (including mine) that he would fade by the time the presidential campaign got serious, Trump continues to loom large, offering little other than an authoritarian appeal to rage and racism.

Obama addressed Trump with this: “When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.”

Haley, calling herself “the proud daughter of Indian immigrants,” also addressed Trump directly, though, like Obama, she did not name him: “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation. No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”

It was a poignant moment for perhaps our two most successful nonwhite political leaders—both Christians, one suspected by his enemies of being a secret Muslim, the other raised a Sikh. But it remains to be seen whether it will do any good. As you may have heard, right-wing controversialist Ann Coulter responded on Twitter that “Trump should deport Nikki Haley.”

At Talking Points Memo, liberal journalist Josh Marshall called Obama’s speech “a rebuke to the Trumps and the Cruzes” and, for the rest of the country, “a wake up call, a friendly reality check.” He also described the Trump moment that Obama was addressing in apocalyptic terms—which increasingly strikes me as appropriate:

We’re in the midst of a presidential primary race which has antics and spectacle but, taken in full, is putting on display a dark side and dark moment in America. Not to put too fine a point on it but an avowed white nationalist group is running campaign advertisements for the Republican frontrunner. And it doesn’t seem to be taken as that big a deal. The frontrunner himself can’t even bother to disavow it.

Will any of this have an effect? As other observers have noted, Haley was chosen to give the response by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and she no doubt said exactly what they wanted her to say. If the Republicans somehow manage to choose a normal nominee, she would make a logical running mate.

But Trump’s core supporters—angry, less educated white men—are probably no happier about being lectured to by an Indian-American woman than they are by an African-American. “The target,” wrote Slate’s Jim Newell of Haley’s speech, “would appear to be Trump’s brand of nativism, which, as we know, is also a significant share of Republican voters’ brand of nativism.”

Or as the conservative commentator Ramesh Ponnuru put it at National Review:

Won’t Trump and his supporters be able to claim vindication from the fact that both President Obama and the Republican respondent to him, Nikki Haley, gave speeches that attacked him? Indeed, that obviously reflected an obsession with him? He wants to stand against the leaders of both parties, and today they both obliged.

Dana Milbank, a liberal columnist for The Washington Postpraised Obama’s speech, writing that “in the current environment, there is nothing more important than answering the dangerous demagoguery that has arisen.” You could say the same about Haley, whose remarks were less pointed, but who had a narrower path to walk given that she was calling out a fellow Republican.

We’ll find out during the next few weeks whether it did any good. To return to Lincoln and FDR, we presumably ought to be able to get through this moment without a civil war, and we’re finally recovering from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of Roosevelt’s time.

What we really need—to invoke a considerably less distinguished president—is a return to normalcy. It will be up to the voters soon enough.

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.

A loose, funny and partisan SOTU. But will it matter?

President Obama delivering his State of the Union address.
President Obama delivering the 2014 State of the Union address Tuesday night.

This commentary was published earlier at WGBH News.

President Obama’s fifth State of the Union speech wasn’t his best, but it may have been his most entertaining. Freed from the illusion that Republicans will ever work with him, the president last night was upbeat, funny and slashingly partisan.

He paid tribute to House Speaker John Boehner as “the son of a barkeep,” forcing a pained smile and upraised thumb from his longtime nemesis. He rambled about the glories of Obamacare so that Republicans could be seen sitting on their hands for as long as possible. And, in my favorite moment, he pulled a rhetorical switcheroo that put Republicans in the position of having to applaud gay people if they also wanted to be seen paying tribute to our Olympic athletes.

“We believe in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation,” Obama said. “And next week the world will see one expression of that commitment when Team USA marches the red, white and blue into the Olympic stadium and brings home the gold.” USA! USA!

It was an interesting gambit — a way for a president whose poll numbers have fallen to show dominance over a group of people who are even less popular than he is. According to the most recent ABC News/Washington Post survey, 49 percent of the public hold a favorable view of Obama and 50 percent hold an unfavorable view — down from the 60-37 spread he enjoyed about this time a year ago. But an ABC/Post poll also found recently that 71 percent of Americans disapprove of how congressional Republicans are doing their jobs, compared to just 25 percent who approve. (Congressional Democrats do only slightly better, but they were not Obama’s target Tuesday night.)

The pundit class, both liberal and conservative, took note of Obama’s loose mood.

“Gone from the speech was what I’d heard in pretty much every other Obama State of the Union, pressing bipartisan cooperation, finding common ground, pushing points of agreement,” wrote Josh Marshall, editor of the left-leaning Talking Points Memo. “There wasn’t a contrary note. It was more just ignoring the whole thing, as though the President were saying, ‘Okay, guys, I get it. You won’t do anything. Okay. Fine.’ Basically, let’s not play that charade anymore.”

Observing the same phenomenon through the other end of the ideological prism was Rich Lowry of the conservative National Review, who put it this way: “If this is the imperial presidency, it wasn’t a very imperial speech. It was small in every way. It wasn’t eloquent and didn’t even seem to try. Instead it was conversational, including a joke about calling your mother.” Added Ron Fournier of the nonpartisan National Journal: “Is that all there is? … It was a good speech about a modest agenda delivered by a diminished leader.”

On the more substantive elements of the State of the Union, media reaction focused mainly on the president’s determination to work around congressional gridlock through the use of executive orders to raise the wages of employees who work for federal contractors and to combat climate change, among other things. On this front there is some confusion. Is it no big deal given that Obama has actually used such orders far less frequently than his predecessors, as Dan Amira of New York magazine has noted? Or has he exceeded his authority by taking bold actions such as rewriting parts of the Affordable Care Act without the necessary congressional approval, as conservatives such as Charles Krauthammer argue?

Leave it to Wall Street Journal columnist Ted Cruz — wait, that Ted Cruz? — to offer a distinctly nuance-free perspective. “Of all the troubling aspects of the Obama presidency,” he wrote, “none is more dangerous than the president’s persistent pattern of lawlessness, his willingness to disregard the written law and instead enforce his own policies via executive fiat.” Expect to hear a lot of that in the days and weeks ahead.

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the State of the Union was Obama’s near-silence on gun violence, a year after he tried and failed to push Congress into acting following the school massacre in Newtown, Conn. “Obama devoted a whole 67 words to gun control, offering no specifics in a speech that was stuffed with specifics on other issues,” complained Roger Simon of Politico.

And without question, the most memorable and emotional part of the evening came toward the end, when the president acknowledged Army Ranger Cory Remsburg, recovering from grievous injuries suffered in Afghanistan during his 10th deployment, as described by Ernesto Londoño of The Washington Post. We’ll remember that long after Obama’s words are forgotten.

The immediate reaction to the speech was favorable. According to a CNN/ORC snap poll, 76 percent had either a “very positive” or “somewhat positive” reaction to the State of the Union, and the president got a 17 percent bump — from 52 percent before the speech to 69 percent after — in terms of whether his policies would move the country in the right direction.

But such findings tend to be ephemeral at best. If we know one thing about the Obama era, it’s that the president can give a good speech and that it rarely makes a difference in his ability to move congressional Republicans.

“A man who entered the White House yearning for sweeping achievements finds himself five years later threatening an end run around gridlock on Capitol Hill by using executive orders, essentially acknowledging both the limits of his ability to push an agenda through Congress and the likelihood that future accomplishments would be narrow,” wrote Carl Hulse of The New York Times.

On Twitter, John Robinson, former editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina, put it much more succinctly:

Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

Media to president: You’re a liberal!

The state of the union may or may not be strong, but the State of the Union was liberal.

That was the view of media commentators from the left, right and center the morning after President Barack Obama delivered his fourth State of the Union address. The president called for a higher minimum wage, universal preschool and action on gun control and climate change, among other things. And the consensus is that his support for such measures signaled a public embrace of activist government that we’ve rarely seen since the rise of Ronald Reagan more than three decades ago.

Read the rest at the Huffington Post.

At State of the Union, Obama sics media on Romney

My latest for the Huffington Post:

The media are having no problem decoding the not-so-secret message from last night’s State of the Union address. More than anything, Barack Obama wants us to know that Mitt Romney is what the president’s new role model, Theodore Roosevelt, would have called a “malefactor of great wealth.”

You can read the whole thing here.

Obama’s solid State of the Union address

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that President Obama’s State of the Union address was aimed at the public rather than the pundits — and that early returns suggest that he succeeded by emphasizing what keeps middle-class families awake at night.

Thoughts on the state of Obama

Long after the forgettable rhetoric of the State of the Union address has been duly forgotten, voters may remember two things: a combative, self-confident president and a sour, negative opposition party. If President Obama is to stage a political comeback, it may well have begun last night.

Or so I argue in the Guardian.