- - Tuesday, January 20, 2015


The Constitution requires presidents to provide Congress with periodic information on the “state of the union” and President George Washington delivered the required information in a speech to a joint session of Congress in 1790. That turned out to be an unfortunate precedent. Most of his successors haven’t been able to resist making it an occasion for a speech, either.

The presidents who followed him should have copied Thomas Jefferson. He mailed it in. A speech to a joint session of Congress struck him as too much like a king or an emperor speaking from the throne. For more than a century presidents heeded Jefferson’s advice and not until Woodrow Wilson arrived early in the 20th century did a president make a speech when a memo would have better sufficed. Jefferson would have been appalled. We are, too.

The pomp of the modern State of the Union is sad to watch. The president’s arrival in the House chamber is announced in stentorian voice and congressmen elbow in to be touched or photographed shaking the great man’s hand. The speeches that follow are rarely inspiring and rarely remembered. President Obama’s speech last night was a display of all that Jefferson feared, from the elaborate staging to the words of a president who can’t figure out where somebody hid the throne.

The speech was different in some happy ways from those of the past. Bill Clinton droned on and on; his average length was nearly an hour and 15 minutes per speech; he spit out micro-targeted proposals that neither he nor the Congress ever bothered to follow up. Other presidents delivered shorter speeches with broader themes.

Mr. Obama didn’t so much announce as draw attention to proposals he had previously announced. He had leaked like a rusty sieve all the previous week. His tax and spending schemes were greeted with disbelief by some once-adoring media notabilities. Most of his schemes and dreams had been found wanting by Congress when it was controlled by his own party, and nobody thinks this Congress will leap for Harry Reid’s leftover ham sandwich or sup from the casserole Nancy Pelosi couldn’t get anybody to touch. A CNN commentator called the proposals a “litany of Democratic pipe dreams,” and Bob Schieffer of CBS demanded of a White House aide: “Is this real?”

President Obama himself can’t be surprised or even disappointed. He knows his party’s pipe dreams have no chance to become real, but the president understands that when he speaks now he’s talking mostly to himself. He’s no longer the serious leader, but a politician far more comfortable with spinning the rhetoric of a campaign than dealing with the hard work of governing.

Mr. Obama won’t be on the ballot again, but he continues to be a true believer, and what he believes is that pitting Americans against each other still works to his party’s advantage. The result has been a divided and restive country hoping for the change he promised six years ago. He says he wants to work with the new Congress, but by his lights bipartisanship means the other party must roll over and give his wonderful self whatever that wonderful self wants.

That’s not going to happen. Americans must take the president’s words not as a blueprint or a serious attempt to find a way forward, but as a declaration that he will continue to belittle his opponents, divide the country and act as if anyone who disagrees with him is a mean-spirited obstructionist. Rarely has a State of the Union message rung with such clarity.



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