One of the most striking elements of President Obama's State of the Union speech last night is how many times he passed up the opportunity to rely on the recommendations of his own advisors. On topic after topic, Obama ignored advice he had requested or been supplied, instead choosing to speak in broad language which signified little.
Perhaps we should've seen this coming after his series of White House meetings with business leaders, where he told economic experts inside and outside his administration, on the right and left, that their ideas were insufficient:
The ideas presented to him, though, seemed familiar and uninspired. “You know, guys,” he said, according to someone in the room, “I’ve told you before, I want you to come to me with ideas that excite me.” Nothing he was hearing excited him.
In Obama's remarks last night, that malaise about bold new ideas seemed to carry over into remarks that, upon further consideration, were surprisingly tepid given the tenor of the times. His ideas were for the large part safe or recycled -- his proposed non-discretionary non-defense spending freeze merely a "modest extension of his earlier proposal," Sputnik line from a speech in North Carolina, and his repeated call for "winning the future" was the title of a bestselling Newt Gingrich book. The only distance Obama created from his own ideas was the rejection of the least popular part of his signature domestic policy, which is hardly an act of courage.
Of course, repetition of good ideas isn't a bad trait. But repetition of easy lines instead of proposing hard solutions is a classic escape for the politician who craves the warm blanket of plausible deniability.
The most laughable moment in all this came when Obama called last night for finding "a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations." Why, just such a proposal had been put on the table only months ago, by the President's own deficit commission! As Reuters' James Pethokoukis asked, "What, did Obama not check his in-box?"
Former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson told me at the time, "I remember being in this same building back in the 1970s and we were talking about the same dang things. And if nothing changes, so will you!" I wonder why, when the very president who called for the bipartisan commission's creation does not even think their ideas merit consideration as a viable option.
The reality is even in the third year of his presidency, we still know very little about how Obama makes decisions. We've seen presidents who pushed for more aggressive policy solutions to domestic problems, and always had to be restrained or walked back by their more modest underlings -- yet Obama's tendency seems to run toward the opposite goal. His foreign policy is schizophrenic at best. The health care policy that bears his name in reality bears little of his imprint. As Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the former CBO director who has emerged as one of the White House's most perceptive critics, recently told the New York Times: "I honestly do not know where his policy rudder resides." And Holtz-Eakin is not alone -- perhaps this is why Obama himself thinks "You know, I’d make a good chief of staff."
Ultimately, the real flaw here is one that goes well beyond personality -- it is that Obama does not have a pro-growth policy solution for the country which inspires confidence. His choice of wording on a corporate tax cut could not have been more vague -- and it is unlikely to unleash the kind of job growth necessary to begin the climb out of the unemployment hole. His firm commitment that he is "willing to look" at medical malpractice reform is a promise that is tired as ever, and will likely have no consequence. Announcing that a recession is over does is a line sure to get applause -- but as a matter of policy, it does not put anyone on the path back to work or increase the likelihood of employers hiring again.
In retrospect, Obama's choice of the "Sputnik moment" phrase last night to describe the challenges we face as a nation seems particularly ironic. The American response to the original Sputnik was, of course, an aggressive and innovative public-private partnership toward an audacious nationalist aim, climaxing in the moon landing a dozen years later. "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things," JFK called out to us from Houston, "Not because they are easy, but because they are hard."
Yet today, the man from Illinois who ran on the audacity of hope seems to have little stomach for such bold solutions.
Benjamin Domenech (email@example.com) is a research fellow at the Heartland Institute and managing editor of Health Care News.