The president's double
It's taken me a while to figure this out, but I think I've got it. I've tried hard not to believe it, but really, there's no other explanation I can think of. It's a simple one: there are two Barack Obamas.
Most of the time, we see President Obama, who lacks a workable strategy and allows himself to be pushed around by both Republicans and Democrats. Once a year, though, the other Barack Obama — the one who campaigned for the presidency — is allowed out for an hour and gives a remarkably upbeat speech that earns the respect of both parties. It's uncanny.
Tuesday night's State of the Union (SOTU) address was one of his better speeches. Obama was relaxed, jovial and happier than he's seemed in years. He arrived with nothing but good news. Last year was "a breakthrough year". The United States has been "growing jobs at the fastest pace since 1999". The US unemployment rate is "lower than before the financial crisis". The long, difficult period that began with 9/11 is over. "The shadow of crisis has passed and the state of the union is strong," Obama said to rousing applause from members of Congress of both parties.
By all objective measures, the news really was good, and this time, the speech was free of the selective interpretations and weasel words employed in some of his previous SOTUs to paint a rosier picture. From the standpoint of today, the Obama administration has indeed been successful on the economy, if not on some other issues.
Funny thing that President Obama didn't give this speech three months ago, when it would have helped his party to stay in power in Congress. That's why I say there are two of him.
What gave this Obama away as the candidate Obama was also the end of Tuesday's speech. He referred back to the address he'd delivered at the Democratic national convention in 2004, in which he believed in one America without political division — not red states and blue states, but the United States. In 2015, he said, "We are more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are a strong, tight-knit family." Repeating a line from his 2009 inaugural address, he said, "We have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off and begun again the work of remaking America."
Recycled lines like this — or flashbacks — occurred throughout his 2015 speech. So if there's in fact not a candidate Obama and a President Obama, but a single Obama, then his message had to be "I achieved what I set out to do" and, to his detractors, "I told you so." But this was also an acknowledgement that little power remains in his hands.
"Make sure to Instagram it!"
Between the bookends were 45 minutes of what he'd like to see: less wealth inequality, paid sick leave for workers, equal pay for women ("It's 2015! It's time!"), and a higher minimum wage ("If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it"). None of this was new.
What was new was a plan — subject to the approval of Congress — to lower the cost of tuition at community colleges to zero. Also, the manned Mars program is being revived, with an astronaut named Captain Kelly preparing to spend a year in space. ("Good luck, captain, and make sure to Instagram it!" Obama said.)
What little of this the Republicans might agree to in principle will be defeated as soon as the cost is discussed. Whether Congress cedes to Obama the authority to finalize trade deals such as TTIP in exchange for being asked permission to fight a full-fledged war against the Islamic State will be the true test of whether the two sides can work together.
The 10-minute Republican response was delivered by Senate newcomer Joni Ernst from Iowa. She described her own rags-to-riches story from pig farmer and fast-food worker to lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard, before repeating long-standing Republican claims that Obamacare had "failed" and that Obama has been delaying approval of an oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. She did show agreement with the president in supporting the European and Pacific free-trade agreements, in saying that terrorists are bad, and in acknowledging that veterans deserve proper care.
So all in all, you can go back to sleep now. Nothing has changed except the economy. President Obama will go back to work and candidate Obama will go back into the box until he gives his final State of the Union speech, next year at this time. By then the primary elections will have started, and he will be overshadowed by a political campaign we can't yet imagine.