As President Obama cruised through his sixth State of the Union address, Democratic lawmakers, who frequently rose to cheer on their party leader, began to notice how poorly the speech was being received by their GOP colleagues. The response surprised them, even in an age of deep partisanship.
“At one point, it was comical, my Democratic colleague Tim Walz, was like, ‘my God, they won’t even stand up for apple pie!’ There were some apple pie moments they didn’t stand up for,” said Rep. Mark Takano, a liberal Democrat who represents part of California’s Inland Empire.
With GOP lawmakers grudgingly sitting through what they considered through another lecture by a petulant, professorial Obama, the president was trying to channel some of the magic of his famous 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. He quoted himself saying that there wasn’t a liberal America or a conservative America, or a black America or white America, but a United States of America.
Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision. How ironic, they say, that our politics seems more divided than ever. It’s held up as proof not just of my own flaws – of which there are many – but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided,and naive, and that there are too many people in this town who actually benefit from partisanship and gridlock for us to ever do anything about it.
The president added, “I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong.”
Six years in to his presidency, Obama is on track to be the most polarizing president, according to public polls. He has lost more Democratic congressional seats in midterm elections than any president since Harry Truman, and he won reelection himself primarily by demonizing Mitt Romney as a heartless plutocrat, similar to how George W. Bush tarnished John Kerry en route to a victory that carried no governing mandate.
But beyond that, it is something of a classic Obama moment for him to attribute his failure to unite Washington, or the country, to people who supposedly embrace and argue for the status quo of the political system, rather than respond to its incentives that are largely beyond their control.
It’s “classic” because one of Obama’s well-worn rhetorical techniques is to cloak self-serving narratives in lofty, cleverly-crafted phrases that leave him as the reasonable actor and his opponents as bigoted sowers of strife.
For example, in the next paragraph after casting himself as a fighter against cynicism, Obama said “I’ve seen something like gay marriage go from a wedge issue used to drive us apart” – by implication, not something people ever had honest disagreements about – “to a story of freedom across our country.” Would the “wedge issue” era be during the years Obama himself opposed gay marriage — as in all those years before 2012?
Republicans watching the speech said it followed a familiar pattern.
“If I listened to the end of the speech, I would have thought his first week would have been different than offering five veto threats,” quipped House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
“He talks about equal pay. This is the same White House that pays women an average of 18 percent less than men. Don’t lecture us on equal pay where in my office, where I control it, we pay women an average of $4,000 more a year. That’s the type of lecturing that I’m talking about that his actions don’t match his words,” said Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL).
Despite the lofty vows, Obama “has never shown an ability to come work with us to get any of them done,” Davis added.
“It seemed more appropriate for perhaps his first state of the union. We’ve got a six year tax record that is hard to reconcile with his rhetoric,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX).
“Same old, same old,” said Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ).