Six years ago, a fresh-faced new senator ran against the establishment of Democratic politics by saying he represented a new approach to politics. The Clintons were just a repeat of the same old partisan conflicts; he represented a new beginning.
But in this year’s State of the Union address, Barack Obama sounded uncannily like Bill Clinton, the president whose wife he succeeded in vanquishing in South Carolina and Iowa. And not just any old Bill Clinton, but the President Clinton who delivered a surprisingly similar speech at the same point of his presidency.
Clinton’s 1998 State of the Union came just days after the Lewinsky scandal broke. But his tone and purpose was not hugely different from Obama, the president he still treats as an uncomfortable successor.
To be sure, their circumstances are entirely different. Despite the best efforts of Obama’s conservative critics, the challenges of launching a health care website do not match the existential threat of impeachment.
Still, the effort to inspire a nation–while speaking in front of a Republican House–looked and sounded remarkably familiar, 16 years after Clinton’s address.
For instance, who said this line?
“What I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all–the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead.”
And who said this?
“We are moving steadily toward an even stronger America in the 21st century: an economy that offers opportunity, a society rooted in responsibility, and a nation that lives as a community.”
The first was President Obama; the second was President Clinton. Opportunity and responsibility are the platitudes of a second-term Democratic president with little room for maneuver.
The rhetoric of a Republican president in his sixth year was not much different, either.
President Obama ended his speech describing the heroic service of an Army Ranger who almost died in Afghanistan. President Bush placed his moving story about a Marine Staff Sergeant, who died in Iraq, in the middle of his speech.
Both servicemen were cited in the context of a president searching for a more inspiring figure of national determination that their own presence on stage. “Never falter!” said President Bush, citing the letter written by the fallen staff sergeant.
“Like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit,” said President Obama.
There is, in policy terms, no equivalence between Presidents Bush and Obama. And there is, in terms of their political context, no comparison between Clinton and Obama.
But this is the point in any presidency where the man at the podium doggedly digs in for his legacy projects, which are hard to achieve if not hard to describe.
It is also the point where the president tries to dazzle with some innovation that sounds optimistic and exciting, but is also hard to achieve.
For Bill Clinton in 1998, the dogged project was to save Social Security. For George W. Bush it was to save Iraq. For Barack Obama, it was to stop the endless efforts to repeal Obamacare.
For Clinton, the innovative dazzle was more school construction. For Bush, it was energy from wood chips and switch grass. For Obama, it was a new retirement savings bond. Of the three, the best orator – President Obama – delivered the least inspiring dazzle.
The challenge for a president facing his second mid-term election year is not about what he can achieve through legislation. Both Bush and Obama called for immigration reform, knowing full well they were never likely to achieve what they wanted.
The real challenge is to use the bully pulpit to frame the election year on favorable terms for their own party – not least in the distant hope of big legislation at the end of the second term.
Clinton’s party actually picked up seats in the 1998 mid-terms because of the GOP’s impeachment overreach. Bush lost the Congress in 2006 because of the quagmire of Iraq.
But Obama missed a golden opportunity to take the fight to his Republican opposition ahead of the 2014 midterms. He landed a good crack about the 40-plus House votes to repeal the health care law, but delivered no promises grander than to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors. He casually mentioned the government shutdown but didn’t drive home the political advantage of that GOP debacle.
Why Obama pulled his punches isn’t clear. He is no longer running for reelection. He can be under no illusion about a possible compromise with House Republicans. Perhaps he holds out a sliver of hope about immigration reform. Or perhaps he finds the State of the Union a tired ritual with little relevance to what is left of his presidency.
President Bush used to complain in private about the lack of reaction among members of Congress to his annual address. He dreamed of reaching through the Teleprompter to shake up the wax figures in front of him to prompt some kind of reaction.
With just two state of the union addresses left before he departs the White House, President Obama has few opportunities to shake up the waxworks.
He has little time to shape the domestic political debate before the 2016 candidates shape that debate for themselves.
Never mind the State of the Union. The state of this presidency is now searching for a purpose.