Articles

What Was Obama Thinking?

January 21, 2015

President Obama ’s State of the Union address on Tuesday evening was oddly disconnected.

It was disconnected from events abroad. He said that “the shadow of crisis has passed.” Earlier that day Iranian-backed rebels stormed the compound of the president of Yemen, an American ally. Islamic State, which Mr. Obama referred to a year ago as the “jayvee team,” now controls large parts of Syria and Iraq—leading the president to ask for congressional authorization to use force against it.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions remain undimmed. Mr. Obama spoke about Russia but failed to mention its annexation of Crimea. He did not mention al Qaeda or Islamic extremism, despite an al Qaeda affiliate claiming responsibility for the Paris massacre.

Mr. Obama’s speech was disconnected from economic reality. The recovery he touted is the weakest in U.S. history and the only one in which median household income dropped. While two million more Americans are on payrolls today than in December 2007 when the recession began, there are 14 million more people not in the workforce as the nation’s population grew faster than the pool of available jobs. There are two million more people working part-time because they can’t find full-time jobs.

Mr. Obama’s speech was also disconnected from his record. In 2009 he projected unemployment would reach 5% in December 2013 if his stimulus bill was passed. Yet after spending more than $1 trillion on a variety of stimulus measures, unemployment was 5.6% last month—and would be 8.3% were it not for the millions who dropped out of the labor force. Mr. Obama touted rising U.S. oil production that’s led to lower gasoline prices—but this was brought about by drilling on private and state lands. Mr. Obama has reduced drilling on federal land or in federal waters.

His lecture to Congress about civility and bipartisanship would have been convincing had he not governed in an unusually ruthless, hyperpartisan way for six years.

On CBS’s “Face The Nation” last Sunday, White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said the administration would “double down on our efforts to deal with wage stagnation and declining economic mobility.” The president has been in office for six years and none of his efforts have made either problem better. A record number of Americans are in poverty and 15% more people receive food stamps today than when he took office. Much of this is thanks to a stagnant economy that Mr. Obama’s tax-and-spend policies have kept in the doldrums.

It is hard to fathom why the president offered so many proposals that have zero chance of passing the Republican-run Congress. The most likely explanation is while he is uninterested in governing, he is intent on positioning Democrats for the 2016 presidential race. But while his class-warfare theme is timeless, his policy proposals are highly perishable.

He could be trying to burnish his legacy. But free community college and higher capital-gains taxes on family farms and small businesses are not the stuff of heroic political legends.

He could be trying to blame Republicans for gridlock by offering ideas they won’t pass, hopefully overshadowing coverage of Mr. Obama’s vetoes and obstructionism.

He could be trying to chew up the clock. When Republicans talk about his agenda, there is less time to talk about theirs.

Or it could be that Mr. Obama is trying to become more relevant by making himself even more obnoxious to the Republican congressional majority and thereby provoke conflict.

Republicans should decline the invitation, instead treating Mr. Obama’s proposals mostly with benign neglect. If he complains about obstructionism, Republicans should point to the failure of the White House and congressional Democrats to press his initiatives by drafting bills, seeking committee approval and offering them on the floor.

Most important, Republicans should fill the policy vacuum left by Mr. Obama’s dead-on-arrival package with a robust, pro-growth reform agenda that focuses on the middle class—one that simplifies the tax code, rolls back onerous regulations, further expands domestic energy production, restrains spending, controls the debt, increases trade and modernizes entitlements.

Many of these proposals will be difficult to pass. More than a few will be vetoed. But some congressional Democrats will support the proposals and, more significantly, voters will see Republicans leading the way to concretely improve the state of the union.

A version of this article appeared January 22, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline What Was Obama Thinking? and online at WSJ.com.

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