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Obama urges us to fix politics, but we’re not listening

It’s sad that Washington has become such a grim, phony, gridlocked venue.

President Barack Obama: “How can we make our politics reflect what's best in us, and not what's worst?”
REUTERS/Evan Vucci/Pool

Instead of trying to channel a bunch of pundits that I’m sure are still opining on the tube, I’m going to just give you my gut feeling after watching President Obama’s final State of the Union address.

Sad. It made me sad, even though I agreed with many things Obama said and thought they were things that needed to be said. It made me sad because it seems so unlikely to have any impact on the brain-dead politics of left and right in which we are trapped. Obama seemed to know it, too.

I was struck by the straight-line mouth and dead eyes that Speaker Paul Ryan maintained through almost all of the speech. I was struck by how few of the president’s applause lines managed to be greeted with bipartisan applause. Even the Democrats in the room, who obviously applauded a lot more than the Republicans did, didn’t seem to have their hearts in it. It’s sad that Washington has become such a grim, phony, gridlocked venue. We have just reached the point where few are even pretending to look for opportunities for bipartisanship, although Obama put in a half-hearted plug for it.

Even this line during the four questions that Obama said he wanted to pose to the Congress — “How can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?” — wasn’t applause-worthy, let alone the (apparently) highly offensive question: “How do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?”

In denial

We’ve reached the point where anything positive that has happened during the Obama years is painful for Republicans to acknowledge. It’s natural and normal, of course, that Obama would want to brag about how well the economy has done during his tenure and that Republicans would prefer to focus on how much better it would have done under their preferred policies. But they seemed either in denial about the strength of the economic rebound from the Great Recession, or just don’t like to think about it.

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Obama also made the apparently controversial claim that “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth, period. It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.”

Yeah, sure, I understand that one of our nation’s great political parties is invested in believing that Obamaism represents feckless weakness that undermines our friends and emboldens our enemies, but if they think there is a more powerful military on Earth, I wish they would say where it is based.

Likewise, Republicans looked grimly at their shoes when Obama delivered one my personal favorite passages from the speech, which went like this:

“We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis even if it’s done with the best of intentions. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately will weaken us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam. It’s the lesson of Iraq, and we should have learned it by now.”

OK, yeah, I understand why the party of neo-conservatism couldn’t smile or clap for that one.

But it was also sad, if understandable, that Obama semi-admitted he has all but given up on anything big that requires Congressional action happening during the year ahead. Yes, he still seemed to be craving an outburst of bipartisan action, but his tone suggested that he knew it wasn’t going to happen. And so did the tone in the House chamber.

Sad admission

So he talked about the need for political reform. But such radical ideas as making it easier for people to vote got the same treatment as above, which seemed like a sad admission by the Repubs that they rely on low turnout to survive.

Obama, who has gone grey before our eyes these last seven years, who tried without mentioning names to call out some of the incivility of Donald Trump or some of the militarism of Ted Cruz, came across a little like an old fogey hearkening back to the good old days when our political system could actually function. And hey, at least none of the members of Congress yelled out “you lie” during the speech.

Compared to some of the unhappy examples of recent years, the Repubs probably made a good choice of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to give their response. She came across as fairly human, although her attempt to describe the Republican alternative was a little lacking in substance. She said that:

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“If we [Republicans] held the White House, taxes would be lower for working families, and we’d put the brakes on runaway spending and debt. We would encourage American innovation and success instead of demonizing them, so our economy would truly soar and good jobs would be available across our country.

“We would reform education so it worked best for students, parents, and teachers, not Washington bureaucrats and union bosses. We would end a disastrous health care program, and replace it with reforms that lowered costs and actually let you keep your doctor.

“We would respect differences in modern families, but we would also insist on respect for religious liberty as a cornerstone of our democracy. We would recognize the importance of the separation of powers and honor the Constitution in its entirety. And yes, that includes the Second and Tenth Amendments.

“We would make international agreements that were celebrated in Israel and protested in Iran, not the other way around. And rather than just thanking our brave men and women in uniform, we would actually strengthen our military, so both our friends and our enemies would know that America seeks peace, but when we fight wars we win them.”

Maybe so. And maybe we’ll find out.

A full, slightly annotated transcript of the SOTU address from the Washington post is here. A full text of Haley’s response is here.

Comic relief

If you feel the need for a little comic relief, here’s New Yorker satirist Andy Borowitz’s take, written before the speech.

In case you hit a paywall, Borowitz’s fake news story begins:

“Looking ahead to his final State of the Union address, Barack Obama told NBC’s Matt Lauer that he was ‘celebrating, just celebrating the last time I ever have to talk to these bastards.’”