President Barack Obama can cross off his final State of the Union address (full text) off his bucket list. How to measure the disappointment of this last performance, which so neatly mirrors the disappointment of his time in office.
He promised a short speech but then droned on for what seemed like a hell of a long time. He said he wouldn't give a laundry list and instead just sort of dumped laundry on the table. There were feints toward the sort of optimism—the hope and change—that energized his original victory, but nobody in or out of the Capitol was energized by it.
We live in a time of extraordinary change?—?change that's reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet and our place in the world. It's change that promises amazing medical breakthroughs, but also economic disruptions that strain working families. It promises education for girls in the most remote villages, but also connects terrorists plotting an ocean away. It's change that can broaden opportunity, or widen inequality. And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.
Thanks for the news, Mr. President, and the balanced view of good and bad. But really, what have you done to make America a freer, better, more prosperous place? Mass surveillance of citizens (including a secret kill list)? Layering on huge new sets of regulations and bureaucracies? I'm just not seeing it.
When it comes to foreign policy, what are we supposed to think? The world was in flames when Obama took office, but he's done next to nothing to starve them of oxygen. Indeed, he's exacerbated them in North Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East, where his improv line about Syria years ago contributed to a huge and destabilizing refugee situation. He had the absolute balls to mention his supposed success with Iran even as that country earlier today took 10 American sailors in custody today.
The plain fact is that seven years into Obama's presidency, fully two-thirds of us think the country is heading in the wrong direction. That's not all Obama's fault. As bad as his approval numbers are, they are better than Congress's. But Obama's concluding calls for civility and compromise are laughable in the face of his and his party's actions.
Democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn't work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention. Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn't matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.
Too many Americans feel that way right now. It's one of the few regrets of my presidency?—?that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.
There's no question that the Republicans are awful in their ways, too. But if the best that Obama can do with the end of his time in office in sight is to invoke the hope and change he originally ran on, he must be judged a failure. Yes, he passed a "transformative" health care bill that is not only predicated upon an archly coercive individual mandate but that is failing to deliver lower prices and already falling apart. He has set more fires around the world than he put out and has presided over the slowest economic recovery since World War II.
The speech he gave tonight was a rough draft for the presidency that he might have begun in 2008, if only he wasn't so busy laying the groundwork for his own lackluster performance.