President Obama’s final State of the Union (SOTU, for Tweet geeks) was like a glass of warm milk. Comforting, gentle and sleep inducing.
Having contributed to a few of Mario M. Cuomo’s speeches (like his speech at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, when NYC was reeling from riots in Crown Heights, and his NY Press Club speech on the First Amendment) my expectations for every important speech by a chief executive are extraordinarily high. Admittedly, I was spoiled by a master of the craft.
But, on the heels of his brilliant and poignant press conference on gun control a few weeks ago which had me, and himself, in tears, I expected Obama’s rhetoric and emotions to send the Capitol Dome into orbit—a Steph Curry like finish in the biggest fourth-quarter of his career. But Obama proved, once again, that he was neither a Cuomo nor a Curry, but the same cautious guy who talked about getting red & blue states to be nice to each other, 12 years earlier.
After seven years of increasing partisan rancor, scarcely any of which was his fault as a focused, problem-solving President, Obama took the blame for not being able to diffuse it. That’s like someone being badgered with “When-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife?” questions and instead of hitting the insulting troll in the nose for the insinuation and forcefully saying, “I never started,” Obama admitted that maybe he should have been nicer to the abusive questioner. Pulllleeeeeese, Barack.
While his so-soothing speech contained a few barbs aimed at Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, Chris Christie and Mitch McConnell, and made a logical—and economically sensible—case for leading on climate change, Obama’s hour long fireside chat lacked fire. Rather than lamenting obstacles in the way of voter participation and exhorting citizens to vote, a President can direct the U.S. Justice Department to legally challenge every single attempt to undermine voting rights. What was lacking on the voting rights issue, and on most others in Obama’s so-so speech, was a commitment to enforce the lofty ideals he believes in—ideals for justice and human dignity; ideals which led many of us to support him early on in his quest for the Presidency.
Despite living in NYC and being a constituent of Senator Hillary Clinton’s, I was an ardent Obama supporter going back to 2007. Attending one of the first fund-raisers for Obama at the Sheraton Manhattan Hotel with a few thousand die-hards, I was swept up in a wave of passion and hope which rippled through the mixed age, mixed-race crowd. Young people of color, clamoring to get close to the stage, held their cellphones high, cameras clicking as he spoke. This was our moment, and I was transported back to the first Bobby Kennedy rally I attended as a 15 years old, when RFK campaigned for U.S. Senator from New York. At that rally, I held up a huge white sheet, with the words “Hello Bobby” painted on it in blue paint, and I was certain we would change the world for the better.
Forty-three years later, I held up my hands for Obama and cheered, whistling my ballpark whistle, feeling good about a new generation joining the fight for justice and equality. Having been robbed of two Kennedys and a King by gun violence, perhaps my hopes were too high, or I endowed Obama with gifts of leadership and toughness he never possessed.
The President said as much, in his last-hurrah speech, noting that if he were a Roosevelt or a Lincoln, he might have been able to get feuding factions to find common ground. It was a clever attempt to neutralize his critics, on both sides of the aisle, by invoking the images of Presidential giants leading a divided nation during times of great stress. However, his veiled comparison of crass political bickering to the national catastrophes of the Civil War and the Great Depression, was a classic Obama head fake.
Instead, his SOTU swan song, sounded to me, like a surrender. Once again, he backed away from hitting his disloyal opposition squarely between the eyes; once again, he attempted to play nice with the barnyard bullies bent on eviscerating his entrails. Obama’s last SOTU, became so…so… “too”: too soft, too little, too long, too accommodating, too trusting, too conciliatory, too weak and far too understanding,
And now, it’s too late for Obama to beat the shot clock, or hit an unbelievable three-pointer from beyond the paint. We’ve already seen all his moves.