Henninger: The State of Obama

While the State of the Union speech is normally about relating a president's public policies to conditions in the country, the Obama State of the Union speech is about one thing: the Obama project. Commentary noted the mismatch of the speech between its goals and money available in the federal budget.

By DANIEL HENNINGER
February 13, 2013, 7:04 p.m. ET
Wall Street Journal

Here's what has to be understood. It's all about him.

A State of the Union speech normally is about relating a president's public policies to conditions in the country. An Obama State of the Union speech is about one thing: the Obama project.

It would be unfair to say that everything and everyone else in a complex world are irrelevant. But let's be clear about the priorities: Congress, the Cabinet of courtiers, the press, the people and indeed the national problems described in that State of the Union speech—it's all brick and mortar in the future Obama monument.

That we are all just riding in Barack Obama's sidecar should have been obvious from day one. His 2008 Denver acceptance speech enveloped nearly everything. The vast, sweeping goals he then laid out in January 2009 are virtually the same ones he described Tuesday night—the climate cleansed, education for all, social justice achieved and the drowning middle-class saved.

The Washington Post's Ezra Klein, an Obama admirer, commented without irony right after the State of the Union: "In some ways, what was most noticeable about the speech was what wasn't in it: Nothing."

Commentary from right to left after the speech noted the mismatch between its goals and money available in any conceivable federal budget. So why is he doing this? More to the point, what have we gotten ourselves into with this president?

Well, it's big. Mr. Obama by his own statements has made clear that he's at the center of something larger than the mere here and now.

In a 2011 CBS interview he said, "I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president—with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR and Lincoln, just in terms of what we've gotten done in modern history."

On another occasion: "Around the world, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, what they did was hard. It takes time. It takes more than a single term."

Again in 2011: "And now that King has his own memorial on the Mall I think that we forget when he was alive there was nobody who was more vilified, nobody who was more controversial, nobody who was more despairing at times."

An unprompted remark at a fundraiser with NBA stars last year: "It is very rare I come to an event where I'm like the fifth or sixth most interesting person. Usually the folks want to take a picture with me, sit next to me, talk to me. That has not been the case at this event and I completely understand."

Johnson, FDR, Lincoln, Gandhi, Mandela, Martin and Michael. What the rest of us do is bear witness.

"It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many," he said Tuesday, "and not just the few." Has anyone noticed how much of the Obama agenda is endlessly "unfinished"? The climate, great schools in every neighborhood, even real economic growth—it's always just over the horizon.

Whether any of these laws and spending ideas—Fix-It-First, an Energy Security Trust, Paycheck Fairness—come to life, much less work, doesn't matter. That's not their first purpose. For Mr. Obama, the main thing is to join one or two real achievements, such as ObamaCare, to a laundry list of grandiose intentions and hope future historians conclude that what little he did and all that he dreamed made him a great man. Some might say it's delusional. He'd say that history will judge.

As to the American population, beset with anxieties over low growth and persistent unemployment, they're expected to gut it out with their inspirational president. In year five, he's proposing 15 "manufacturing hubs" that he says will be "global centers of high-tech jobs." Anyone who has seen "Annie" on Broadway knows the translation: "The sun will come out—tomorrow."

Coverage of the speech described how he'll now "hit the road to sell his ideas to audiences in North Carolina, Georgia and Illinois." It seems normal until you notice he spends little or no time trying to sell any of this to Congress itself. Most of his past high-visibility proposals have underachieved or disappeared in Congress. He prefers instead the wand of solo executive authority. Even Bill Clinton, no stranger to the admiration of crowds, spent presidential capital building support one-on-one with key members of Congress. Hillary or Joe Biden would have done the same.

Not this president. It's about him and history. Everything is a function of mobilizing the base on behalf of the Obama project. The now-famous Obama campaign media operation in place the past four years has now reincarnated as Organizing for Action, essentially a mega-flack machine for selling the project.

And that's a danger. Barack Obama is indeed in sync with the public will, so much so that he has largely dismissed and devalued the rest of the system, specifically Congress and the courts. In the next four years, that could prove to be a problem.

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