The Triumph of His Will

President Obama Delivers The State Of The Union Address

President Obama’s State of the Union Address makes blogging colleague Greg Weiner’s suggestion to abolish it look pretty good. Of the constitutional clause requiring that he address Congress, Greg observes:  “If anything, modern Presidents ought to view its opening phrase—‘from time to time’—as a limit rather than a license.”  I am even more drawn to Frank Buckley’s devastating critique of contemporary presidential governmentThe Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America.

I would have thought that Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) of all pols would not have conceded victory to Obama when he attacked Obama’s “class warfare” proposals—which is exactly the way Obama wants them viewed. Or that the congressman characterized the speech as not as extreme as he feared it would be.

Evidently no one heard Obama declare,  “My only agenda for the next two years is the same as the one I’ve had since the day I swore an oath on the steps of this Capitol ­­­— to do what I believe is best for America.” No, he swore an oath to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” What he feels “is best for America” may well differ from faithful execution of his office and guardianship of the Constitution. So Obama admits he is a law unto himself.

One suspects that he described his “agenda” in this way in order to encourage a vote on impeachment or, better, to further humiliate those who wish to impeach him but decline that duty. But what a bizarre conception of the presidency: calculating how one might draw impeachment charges.

The State of the Union spectacle justified the worst of the Antifederalist fears of a royal court. All that up-and-down gymnastics and applauding must, following Aristotle on virtue-as-habituation, erode any feeling of independence in the legislators, when in fact their duty demands suspicion of the other branches.

The presidency on view last night is certainly the rhetorical presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, in which Congress is belittled and the public’s passions are aroused. It channels the partisan, centralizing presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, who compared conservative Republicans to Nazis in a State of the Union Address 71 years ago.

Obama deployed his typical rhetorical motif of despising partisanship and espousing reason. He boldly claimed a flabbergasting “breakthrough year for America,” flattered various constituencies, issued veto threats, and praised the vital role of government in “middle class economics”—all in “a budget filled with ideas that are practical, not partisan.”

The President urged that “we need to set our sights higher than just making sure government doesn’t screw things up; that government doesn’t halt the progress we’re making. We need to do more than just do no harm.” This echoes his Second Inaugural chiding that “We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.” Activity is all, whether it benefits or not, whether it is principled or not. Politics is about creating spectacles, as Machiavelli taught and as “cash for clunkers”—a golden oldie from six years ago—demonstrated.

Obama has flown directly from his Second Inaugural to this State of the Union Address, a Faust overleaping the political wreckage of 2014’s midterm election. But where is he headed? And where does he want to take us? The direction has always been clear: to be a transformative leftist, far beyond an ordinary liberal (such as Clinton). To do so, he had to purify the Democratic Party. (Thus, he is a mystery to most political analysts, even one as astute as Bill Galston, who thinks Obama still wants significant legislation passed.)

Just by his election, Obama achieved a major part of his goal. His is the first winning ticket in Democratic Party history that did not have a Southerner. His race replaced the need for a white Southerner. Thus, the Democrats could loosen their ties to the conservative South, perhaps beyond his presidency. Other than FDR he is the only Democrat since antebellum times to be elected to two terms while winning a majority of the popular vote. (That his majority shrank points to a weakness, true, but overlooks his lasting achievement.)

He knew that Obamacare would cost him at least the House in 2010. One of the most revealing speeches of his presidency was to House Democrats on the eve of their vote on the Affordable Care Act. He urged, “Don’t do it for me.  Don’t do it for the Democratic Party.  Do it for the American people.” He added: “But what did Lincoln say? ‘I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true.’” He shamed them into voting to lose and used their idealism to produce the most lopsided Republican majority in the House since 1929.

The other side of purifying his party is demonizing the Republicans. In 1932 FDR, as the Democratic nominee, compared obstinate Republicans to “Tories,” that is, un-American traitors. In his acceptance speech four years later he warned:

It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over Government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property. And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man.

So the Nazi comparison, in the throes of World War II, made perfect sense to Roosevelt.

Obama does not hurl such obvious demagoguery against Republicans. He is much more clever than that, for he has political allies who will do this. The conclusion of his speech last night, like the one he gave to the House Democrats, shows his cleverness—and his condescension:

A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.  A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues and values, and principles and facts, rather than ‘gotcha’ moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives.

In other words, Obama seeks a politics without political rancor, an apolitical politics perfect for the administrative state. And what will such a politics look like?

If we’re going to have arguments, let’s have arguments, but let’s make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country. . . . Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different.

(Obama uses the imperative frequently.)

And question-begging arguments are routine for him, on the otherwise contentious issues of abortion, immigration, voting rights, and Ferguson. Last night, on abortion, he used the inarguable formulation “that every woman should have access to the health care that she needs.” Or, following his cloying gloss, “but surely we can agree that the right to vote is sacred,” he tossed in that “it’s being denied to too many.”

Obama calls this kind of performance “a better politics.” He is not incorrect to conclude that “That’s what the American people want. And that’s what they deserve.” It is the way sophists operate: they always give people what they want.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on January 21, 2015 at 09:20:28 am

"It channels the partisan, centralizing Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, who compared conservative Republicans to Nazis in a State of the Union Address 61 years ago."

Excuse my pedantry, but Franklin Roosevelt had already been dead for quite some time 61 years ago. Try 71 years ago. Time flies.

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Image of djf
on January 21, 2015 at 10:00:37 am

Thanks for that catch.

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Image of Ken Masugi
Ken Masugi
on January 21, 2015 at 10:02:03 am

No pedantry.

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Image of Ken Masugi
Ken Masugi
on January 21, 2015 at 10:57:54 am

"Politics is about creating spectacles, as Machiavelli taught ..."
Indeed it is and one of the spectacles that Machiavelli believed necessary for good order was that of *indictment* (not a grand jury matter) - a form of public purging or scorn heaped upon the *other* - more specifically a means of allowing the rabble to properly direct their frustrations at the nobility (or others as situation demanded).

The Big 0 is a master of this technique - he does it somewhat more abstractly than his minions who execute such *indictments* somewhat more crassly AND frequently.

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Image of gabe
on January 21, 2015 at 11:30:44 am

Art. II; Section. 3:

"He **shall** from time to time give to the Congress **information** of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; . . ."

By those words, the President is not required (nor permitted) to address Congress in session, orally.

We do not need to abolish that provision.

However, eliminating the "address" might very well bring focus on that *judgment* of what is "necessary and expedient." Overlooked is the function of the intent of the word "Union." It is a Union of the several States (is it not?) which is the subject of Judge James Buckley's current book urging review of the impact of Congress's action on the "union" of those several states.

That Union is now mature, and the several states are now mere subsidiaries to a central (and centralizing) federal government in the most extensive forms of governmental activities. That is the "State" or condition of the Union to be "perfected" by the Constitution. It is that "State" for which *information* is not clearly given - in fact is often withheld.

Now, that IS pedantry!

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Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on January 21, 2015 at 13:47:08 pm

You're not the only ones to object to Obama giving a speech before Congress.

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Image of nobody.really
on January 21, 2015 at 14:05:33 pm

luvv'd it!!!!

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Image of gabe
on January 21, 2015 at 14:40:07 pm

[…] For a more in-depth analysis of the President’s speech from last night, see this. […]

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Image of Trey Gowdy has the PERFECT Response to Obama's SOTU | The Federalist Papers
Trey Gowdy has the PERFECT Response to Obama's SOTU | The Federalist Papers
on January 21, 2015 at 14:59:13 pm

The whole State of the Union address is nothing but Kubuki Theater played before several hundred trained seals that clap upon being prompted. The fact of the matter is that this circus is controlled by the powers to be behind the curtain and that Mr.Obama and his cohorts in the Congress are nothing but puppets on a string that have been bought and paid for. In the final analysis America is finished as a Republic,has a government that is totally corrupt,bankrupt and in unsustainable and unpayable debt. The Constitution and the rule of law has been dead for years.The real powers to be,the "Deep State" behind the scenes,is the real controller and decider of the future of America. The rest,including The State of the Union speech is nothing but a dog and pony show.

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Image of libertarian jerry
libertarian jerry
on January 21, 2015 at 16:24:02 pm

[…] Obama’s impatience with the Constitution—a document that went unmentioned in last night’s State of the Union address—was on full display. Ken Masugi notes over at the LibertyLawSite: […]

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Image of The Tyrant and the Statesman | Drawnlines Politics
The Tyrant and the Statesman | Drawnlines Politics
on January 21, 2015 at 20:02:42 pm

An exceptional article. Too bad there are not more writers with Masugi's knowledge of and commitment to the Constitution.

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Image of Abraham Miller
Abraham Miller
on January 21, 2015 at 21:11:03 pm

Thanks for this Ken. I certainly didn't watch it. I love your close analysis of FDR's speeches--that "Minute Man" moment certainly has a chill to it! I was going to say you overstate things regarding the 1944 address by saying he compared the conservative republicans to Nazis, but reading it carefully, I see he really does that in the passage leading up to the "spirit of fascism" phrase.

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Image of Carl Eric Scott
Carl Eric Scott
on January 21, 2015 at 21:16:30 pm

Thanks, Carl. Yes, that paragraph near the end is what I had in mind. The "economic bill of rights" stuff is bad enough. But we should keep in mind that all I did was quote his speeches! It required no close reading at all, just a reading. That's how distant we are from knowing FDR.

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Image of Ken Masugi
Ken Masugi
on January 21, 2015 at 21:48:31 pm

Mr. Schweitzer, I plan on hearing Judge Buckley tomorrow at Heritage.

Abe, thanks for the compliment. I am sure there are many others better who are out there, who spend less time on websites.

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Image of Ken Masugi
Ken Masugi
on January 22, 2015 at 10:31:37 am
Image of kldimond
on January 22, 2015 at 10:34:31 am

AiYiYI, brackets.... what that above reply was SUPPOSED to have in it was...


A good chuckle at the reference to Congress as extremist. OTOH, I see the Obamaninistration as the extremist that has satisfied the enemy combatant requirements for indictment on Treason.

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Image of kldimond
on January 22, 2015 at 10:37:24 am

A very satisfying critique of the situation.

However, I don't think we should ban the speech; I just think it provides us the reason, motivation and justification to demand a trap door under the podium and a lever in every living room to release it.

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Image of kldimond
on January 22, 2015 at 12:10:38 pm

I feel somehow Smarter for having read this article. I am used to reading things more like: That SOTU speech made me mad and shows that Obama is really reaching in to his own base in order to butter up the idiots. Instead I felt like a Smart person was writing something I should read if only for my own good. I liked it !

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Image of Will

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.