President Barack Obama had something deceptively close to a humble, confessional moment in has last State of the Union speech.
He said that “rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better” during his time in office and then added that maybe Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt could have done better at fixing things, and yes, that’s obvious. What he failed to add was that there were 41 other former presidents going back to George Washington who could have, too.
Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it’s not terribly far off from the conclusions of some top-drawer presidential scholars whose views were rounded up by the Brookings Institution early last year. By a 3-to-1 margin, they counted Obama as one of the worst presidents in American history, in part because of his polarizing modus operandi.
In his first inaugural, you’ll remember, he attacked President George W. Bush sitting on the platform near him. He kept at it throughout his first term, making it clear that he himself was not responsible for anything going wrong. Then, instead of shrewdly negotiating with congressional Republicans, he would go out as if on the campaign trail and mock them.
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Remember how, in 2014 after the Republicans captured both houses of Congress, he reacted in something close to anger, shunned conciliation, said in so many words that he would make law without Congress and announced how he was going to grant amnesty to about 4 million illegal immigrants.
Even in this latest speech, in which he was calling for everyone to trust and work with each other in the name of the greater good, he took not so subtle shots at Republicans and their oh, so pathetic policy preferences. Nor would he let go of his anti-rich rant, not exactly a sure way to end divisiveness.
Some other speechifying stumbles on the road to a limping legacy.
He bragged about a sterling economy with annual deficits cut by three-quarters. It’s so sterling that median household income remains several thousand dollars lower than it was before the recession hit. And the deficit is only down by three-fourths if you measure it against 2009’s $1.4 trillion deficit that got a boost to those heights by Obama’s stimulus.
The debt, meanwhile, has gone from $6.3 trillion to $13.6 trillion while he has been in office and both deficits and debt are predicted to race upwards in a couple of years with crisis in tow. That will be because of mass retirements coming at us. To fix that, you need non-hurtful adjustments, but Obama said nothing should be done to “weaken” those programs, meaning he probably will refuse adjustment, weakening them to the point of unsustainability.
Obama spoke out for rule of law, which he abuses regularly with the worst of his executive orders. He called for equal pay for equal work for women when in fact we have had such a law since the 1960s and it has accomplished that end. To please both sides on an issue, Obama time and again contradicts himself in speeches, saying in this one that he wanted to scale back on burdensome regulations while also making it clear that he wants more burdensome regulations.
One of the scariest things was his contention that his “smart” and “patient” foreign policy strategies will eventuate in peace when in fact he has scorned advisers as if they were Republican opponents, making decisions aiding the rise of the Islamic State and the decimation of Syria.
There were good things in his speech, such as his asking Congress to approve the truly valuable Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. But time and again he was taking credit for things that happened despite him, not because of him, and here was not a lifting, wise, noble piece of oratory that will be remembered as much as the speeches of Lincoln, Roosevelt and, well, a number of other presidents.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.