They can call it the State of the Union speech all they want, but what we witnessed as President Barack Obama confronted the Republican-controlled Congress in the annual charade was really a State of the Disunion address — or, more accurately, DISS-union. While packaged in the usual rituals of loud comity, what played out was the two sides of our political system saying, “No way, fuhgeddaboutit.”
As the president tried to make his lame-duck agenda soar, there were his enemies in the audience, making it clear they were ready to ground any initiative, that the Obama agenda simply won’t fly.
For the most part, the annual gridlock dance was polite, except maybe for that one little snarky moment. In case you were among those who ignored the whole thing and missed it, POTUS began, “I have no more campaigns to run …” A few Republicans in the audience decided to applaud. Clearly looking like he had sucked them in, POTUS smirked and rejoinded, “I know, because I won both of them.” Then it was the Democrats’ chance to stand up and roar.
They’ve had little to cheer about since the most recent campaign, where they got wiped by the GOP and lost control of the Senate. But that is so yesterday. The past is not prologue in Washington; the next election is the beginning, middle and end. Although in truth it never ends. While Mr. Obama has made his last run, he definitely would like to leave behind a legacy — translated, seeing to it that a member of his party succeeds him. Of course, Hillary Clinton may have something to do with that, as we wait to find out whether she will get in the arena again and, more importantly, whether she has learned how to run without stumbling. There’s evidence that she hasn’t rounded that learning curve completely.
In addition, there are about 25 Republicans, at last count, who are itching to take her on, after they’ve done battle with each other. A few of them were in the audience watching the current chief executive while crafting their statements rejecting everything he said.
They were led by a rookie, Joni Ernst, who delivered the official GOP response (as opposed to the unofficial ones put out by every wing of the party’s nut). Presumably, Sen. Ernst is not pondering a presidential run, since she’s such a newbie, but give her time. Most memorable about her remarks was her description of growing up so poor that she had to use bread bags to cover her shoes in Iowa’s winters because she had only one pair. Presumably she was trying to tell plain folks that she is just one of them, but all I could think of was: “I cried because I had no bread bags, until I met someone who had no shoes, until I met someone …” Well, you get the idea.
Otherwise the story of the night was how Barack Obama, in the twilight of his presidency, suddenly has decided to take it to his opponents with his package of tax hikes on the rich, free community college and mandatory paid family and sick leave, leaving his friends to grumble what took him so long, and his adversaries to wonder what he’s been smoking.
That gets us back to where we started: The State of the Union is an exercise in futility that millions tune out. Think of it as a ratings opportunity for the Cooking Channel. At one time, it probably symbolized to the American people the majesty of their federal government, but all it really serves to do anymore is to remind them of the petty, superficial nastiness that has seized our nation’s leaders.
There is platitudinous talk of the different sides working together, but first we have an election campaign that takes priority. Meantime, about all we can expect is more of the same.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.