The State of the Presidency: Spent
By Charles Krauthammer
January 14, 2016
WASHINGTON -- President Obama’s
Tuesday night address to Congress was less about the state of the union than the
state of the presidency. And the state of this presidency is spent.
The signs of intellectual
exhaustion were everywhere. Consider just three. After taking credit for success
in Syria, raising American stature abroad and prevailing against the Islamic
State—one claim more surreal than the next—Obama was forced to repair to his
most well-worn talking point: “If you doubt America’s commitment—or
mine—to see that justice is done, just ask Osama bin Laden.”
Really? Five years later, that’s
all you’ve got?
Indeed, it is. What else can Obama
say? Talk about Crimea? Cite Yemen, Libya, Iraq, the South China Sea, the return
of the Taliban?
“Surveys show our standing
around the world is higher than when I was elected to this office,” Obama
boasted. Surveys, mind you. As if superpower influence is a Miss Universe
contest. As if the world doesn’t see our allies adrift, our enemies on the
march and our sailors kneeling, hands behind their heads, in front of armed
Iranians, then forced to apologize on camera. (And our secretary of state
expressing appreciation to Iran after their subsequent release.)
On the domestic side, Obama’s
agenda was fairly short, in keeping with his lame-duck status. It was still
startling when he worked up a passion for a great “new moonshot”: curing
Is there a more hackneyed
national-greatness cliché than the idea that if we can walk on the moon … ?
Or a more hackneyed facsimile of vision than being “the nation that cures
cancer”? Do Obama’s speechwriters not know that it was Richard Nixon who
first declared a war on cancer—in 1971?
But to see just how bare is the
cupboard of ideas of the nation’s most vaunted liberal visionary, we had to
wait for the stunning anachronism that was the speech finale. It was designed
for inspiration and uplift. And for some liberal observers, it actually worked.
They were thrilled by the soaring tones as Obama called for, yes, a new
politics—a post-partisan spirit of mutual understanding, rational discourse
and respect for one’s opponents.
Why, it was hope and change all
over again. You’d have thought we were back in 2008 with Obama’s moving,
stirring promise of a new and higher politics that had young people swooning in
the aisles and a TV anchor thrilling up the leg—and gave Obama the White
Or even further back to 2004, when
Obama electrified the nation with his Democratic convention speech: “There’s
not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America;
there’s the United States of America.”
Tuesday night, Obama did an
undisguised, almost phrase-for-phrase reprise of that old promise. Earnestly, he
urged us to “see ourselves not, first and foremost, as black or white, or
Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born, not as
Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans first.”
On cue, various commentators were
moved by this sermon summoning our better angels. Good grief. I can understand
falling for this 12 years ago. But now? A cheap self-quotation, a rhetorical
mulligan, from a man who had two presidential terms to act on that
transformative vision and instead gave us the most divisive, partisan,
tendentious presidency since Nixon.
Rational discourse and respect for
one’s opponents? This is a man who campaigned up and down the country
throughout 2011 and 2012 saying that he cares about posterity, Republicans only
The man who accused opponents of
his Iran treaty of “making common cause” with Iranians “chanting death to
The man who, after Paul Ryan
proposed a courageous, controversial entitlement reform, gave a presidential
address—with Ryan, invited by the White House, seated in the first
row—calling his ideas un-American.
In a final touch of irony, Obama
included in his wistful rediscovery of a more elevated politics an expression of
reverence for, of all things, how “our Founders distributed power between …
branches of government.” This after years of repeatedly usurping Congress’
legislative power with unilateral executive orders and regulations on everything
from criminal justice to climate change to immigration (already halted by the
There is wisdom to the 22nd
Amendment. After two terms, presidents are spent. Nothing shows it like a State
of the Union valedictory repeating the hollow promises of the yesteryear
candidate—as if the intervening presidency had never occurred.