President Obama had affecting and eloquent moments in this speech, as he does in many remarks. But this address had many limits. Some of the claims were mistaken. For instance, it's hard to blame technology on the declining income of many nontradeable service jobs, such as home-health aides, which are projected to increase over the next decade. While the president rightly noted the declining incomes for the middle, he did not explain how his efforts to increase the number of guest workers would increase these incomes.
As Tim Carney has noted, President Obama has failed to deliver on many of his promises (on health-care, lobbying, and so forth). On financial reform, the president blamed the financial crisis on large financial institutions. But his administration has defended Too Big to Fail.
This failure of aspiration is particularly striking for the more thematic points of this address. The president is right to claim that reaffirming the bonds of trust is crucial for strengthening the Republic's foundations. However, his administration and its allies have often subverted rather than supported this trust. The president castigates partisan polarization--when his party attacked the filibuster. The president rightly criticizes tribalism as an opponent of civil republicanism. But, unfortunately, many of the president's allies and the administration itself have indulged in identity politics. One of the great threats to the public trust is the fear that leaders can set themselves above the law, and the executive supremacy championed by the White House inflames public passions and discounts legislative solutions.
Perhaps one of the biggest failings of this speech is its reliance on a false choice. The president has a tendency to conceive of "Change" as a force with its own agency. Change is coming, he tells us, and we can either be on the side that accepts this change (i.e., my side) or the one that futilely fights against it.
However, men and women have agency, and change in part depends upon their desires. People have every right to interrogate Change so that it is in accord with their values. The vision of Change promulgated by progressive mandarins is not the only one, and one is not a retrograde troglodyte for having doubts about a given course of change. "I believe in change," President Obama said at the end of his remarks, but this statement says less than he might think. What kind of change--in what places, to what degree, in what manner? Change can be good, but it can also be bad. As we have some limited power to direct change, we have the responsibility to weigh which particular changes to make.
It is especially ironic for the president to cast himself as the avatar of the future when he has so often clung to the past. As I've suggested in the past, the president has too often fallen into the nostalgia trap:
The president talks much about History and the importance of being on the “right side” of It. However, so much of what counts as “progressive” these days seems like a tired remake of Sixties politics: The Great Society meets New Left radicalism but with iPhones and skinny jeans. As with many remakes, this version is less exciting (we’ve seen how this movie ends) and less current. I don’t mean to discount the differences between the Great Society and the Great Disappointment of the Obama years. For instance, a globalized faux cosmopolitanism — simultaneously tribalist and anti-national — seems to have taken much greater hold in the current administration (and perhaps even among some of its supposed political opponents). Yet the Left’s allegiance to the comfortable pieties of the Sixties seems part of the reason for its many failures.
This worldview sees a rural good ol’ boy clinging to his guns and his religion as the greatest foe of “progress.” Thus, it is woefully unprepared to confront the reality of black-robed fanatics beheading religious minorities, enslaving villages, and setting fire to the Middle East. Because of its limited moral imagination, it also struggles to persuade a heterogeneous body politic. Early proponents of Great Society welfare policies might not have foreseen how, too often, well-intentioned government dictates could destroy communities, tear apart families, and destroy the foundation of economic opportunity. Experience has — or should have — disabused us of this naïveté. And say what you will about the dangers of central planning, the technocrats of the past were at least able to do things like put a man on the Moon. The mandarins of today struggle to get a health-care website up and running. Outside the narrowly political realm, as the Far Left claims a resurgent voice in cultural affairs, we have increasingly seen how radical progressive politics are a cultural dead end: Rather than a spirit of creativity, exploration, and accomplishment, radical leftism gives us only the petty tyranny of a Maoist struggle session.There are real challenges facing the nation: middle-class stagnation, diminished opportunity, a disintegrating public square, increasing global uncertainty, strained entitlements, exploding drug-overdose deaths, decentralized terrorism, and many more. It is not pessimism or alarmism to note them. It's realism. We need responsive thinking--not the warmed-over pieties of the New Left--to address them.
For all its good intentions, the Obama administration has so often failed to confront the problems of the present with the pragmatism, deliberation, and openness to dialogue that the president praises in the State of the Union and many other speeches. Rhetoric and political action differ, but some of the seeds of the failures of the president's political actions can be seen in the underlying assumptions of his political rhetoric.