Union had all the customary dignitaries, ritualistic applause, prime-time pre-emptions on broadcast TV — and even less interest than usual.
The checklist of the Obama presidency is clear enough: We’ve got the august trappings of imperial power. We’ve got the smack talk of ruling through “pen and phone.” We’ve got the distaste for the niceties of inconvenient laws and impatience with institutional checks and balances.
Yes, this imperial president has it all, except new or big ideas.
The fight against inequality, which was supposed to be a generation-defining struggle and consume the rest of President Barack Obama’s presidency as of a couple weeks ago, barely rated in the State of the Union. The president used the word “inequality” three times, including once in a three-word sentence and once in a reference to his goal to “reduce inequality in access to higher education.”
It’s as if FDR got Congress to declare war against Japan in December 1941 and then decided not to dwell on the topic in his State of the Union in January 1942 because its inherent divisiveness could give people the wrong idea.
Obama’s pollsters must have let him in on the fact that Americans don’t naturally resent other people’s good fortune. So he shifted ground on Tuesday night to emphasize opportunity instead of inequality. This is a welcome change, but it robbed the speech of any ideological charge. Instead, it was a lumpy bag full of hoary chestnuts, left-over proposals from prior State of the Union addresses, micro-initiatives so small they are barely visible to the naked eye and feel-good exhortations.
What was touted as a big confrontational speech was something to doze off to while awaiting a rerun of “Two and a Half Men.” It often felt like the interminable in the service of the insipid, but Obama was conversational and upbeat. It may be that pointlessness suits him.
Arguably, the big-ticket items, if that’s the right phrase, were extending unemployment benefits and raising the minimum wage. Those aren’t exactly towering policy proposals, although they loomed large compared to the president’s other items.