Delivering his State of the Union address on Tuesday night , President Barack Obama was vigorous, earnest, positive, non-confrontational, occasionally funny and determined to get things done.
But the word that kept popping into my head as I listened was: sugar-coating.
From the jobs numbers he cited (“8 million ... over the past four years”), to education performance (a “graduation rate at its highest level in more than three decades”), to deficits (“cut by more than half”), to Obamacare signups (“more than 9 million”), to Iran’s nuclear intentions (“Iran is not building a bomb.”), to prospects for Afghanistan (“After 2014, we will support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future.”), Obama tried to put the best possible face on the State of the Union, which he called “strong.”
He was evidently trying to convince Americans that he does not deserve to have a 43 percent approval rating (his lowest ever), that nearly two-thirds of voters (63 percent in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll) are mistaken to think that the country is off on the wrong track and that it’s wrong that (according to Quinnipiac) only 46 percent think he is honest and trustworthy and 48 percent say he is not a strong leader.
He tried to assert his leadership, saying: “America does not stand still and neither will I. So, wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
But while the list of things he could do was positive, it was nowhere near what it would take to address what he rightly, but late in the day, called “the defining issue of our time” — the failure of the modern U.S. economy to guarantee upward mobility and opportunity to the vast middle class.
Obama has no specific plans to do the things that might turn that trend around — tax reform that closes loopholes and lowers rates, an entitlement overhaul that shifts benefits from old people to young, a de-regulated and de-bureaucratized infrastructure and energy agenda. He mentioned such plans in only general terms, and omitted entitlement reform completely.
The truth is, the state of the union is not strong and a worried public knows it. The economic recovery is weak — only 74,000 net new jobs created last month when 250,000 a month are needed. In education, the nation’s 15-year-olds rank 28th on world science tests and 36th in math. Deficits are down, but the gross national debt is still more than 100 percent of gross domestic product and is on a rising trajectory. Iran has not given up its capacity to make a nuclear weapon and the United States figures to be just another foreign power that failed to tame Afghanistan.
Regardless what sugar he applies, Obama’s fortunes depend on how his signature program — Obamacare — turns out. And the signs are not good. Yes, people can get insurance regardless of pre-existing conditions and young people can stay on their parents’ policies until they are 26. But sign-ups under Obamacare skew old and sick, menacing the private insurance market. And millions of people are either losing their old insurance policies, seeing their premiums sky-rocket or both. Obama did not suggest any fixes.
He avoided blaming Republicans for his failures, but he’s not going to get much cooperation from them this year — maybe on immigration, but probably not. And at the rate things are going, he may face both a Republican House and a Republican Senate after this year’s elections. Obama tried to be upbeat, but the realities of his situation are down.