13 January 2016

State of the Union: an empty address from a failed president


President Obama ran late in delivering his annual State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress. This was par for the course for a presidency with a well-earned reputation for sloppy management and poor attention to detail. But mercifully the president’s remarks were relatively brief, running a mere 59 minutes in comparison to Bill Clinton’s epic hour and 28 minutes back in January 2000 in his last year in office.

There wasn’t a lot of substance, however, in Obama’s address. Low on policy detail it was full of the kind of mush that has been the hallmark of his presidential speeches. This was though a defiant address, with a great deal of hubris, a victory lap from an outgoing POTUS who has had little in the way of triumphs during his tenure. President Obama leaves behind an America that is more divided, economically less free, and suffocated by the rise of a big government culture that would make even the President of the European Commission blush. Mr. Obama has been in many ways a quintessentially continental European-style politician, with an addiction to heavy spending, massive public debts, soaring taxes, and ever-rising red tape and regulation.

There was little sense from last night’s State of the Union address that the man delivering it was actually the leader of the free world. It is hard not to detect the whiff of decline wafting through Washington these days. A realization that the American superpower is in retreat on the world stage, pulling back from its traditional role as the defender of international liberty. Indeed, President Obama’s biggest legacy will be the absence of American leadership across the globe. In the last seven years America has been weakened militarily, and its imprint, from Europe to the Middle East, has been gravely diminished. For Obama’s stance has been the antithesis of Ronald Reagan’s peace through strength mantra.

While reducing the size of the US military, closing bases across the Atlantic, and pulling American forces out of Iraq, and in large part Afghanistan too, America’s enemies have become more emboldened. From Tehran to Pyongyang and Moscow, the adversaries of freedom have sought to challenge American power. In Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Somalia, Islamist groups have undergone a stunning resurgence since the setbacks inflicted during George W. Bush’s global war on terror. Across a huge swathe of the Middle East and North and East Africa, the “poisonous ideology” (as David Cameron calls it) of militant Islam has grown in strength, now even threatening the very heart of Europe, in Paris, London and Brussels.

Yet, in his address to Congress, there was no response. National security, and the array of threats faced by the United States, is the single biggest issue for American voters today. But it was relegated to the backseat in Obama’s remarks. President Obama’s final State of the Union speech was an opportunity to outline an overarching strategy for keeping America safe. But there was nothing of the sort in the president’s words. For the Obama doctrine is an empty shell. He could not unveil a strategy for defeating ISIS because no such strategy exists. The US president could not talk with conviction about defeating the Islamist threat as he doesn’t even believe that the free world is engaged in a vast confrontation with a fundamentalist and vicious ideology, one that is dedicated to the destruction of Western civilization and the values that underpin it. Nor does he accept that the Islamists pose a direct threat to the United States itself, as clearly demonstrated by the recent San Bernardino massacre.

Simply put, America is led by a president in denial, who stubbornly refuses to accept the reality of the dangerous world we live in. Barack Obama is the antithesis of Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt who stood up to the might of Nazi Germany and won. He is a million miles from the strength and resolve of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who faced down the evil of the Soviet Empire. While Christians face genocide in the Middle East, and terror cells plan acts of mass carnage on the streets of US and European cities, President Obama is content to swing his golf club while preaching class warfare a la Jeremy Corbyn.

Barack Obama spoke with an arrogance and imperial pomposity that starkly contrasted with the reality on the ground. No amount of flowery language can disguise the fact that the US president is woefully out of his depth internationally, an amateur who underplays the scale of the threat the West faces. A figure of Reagan’s stature would have used this address to rally not only the American people, but the entire free world to the cause of crushing ISIS and the Islamist menace that is spreading far and wide. In contrast, Obama was fixated upon scoring political points, mocking the words of his Republican opponents while failing to offer any vision of his own. Strikingly, there was no focus on the recent Islamist terror attacks in Paris, Istanbul and California. Couldn’t the president at the very least have paid tribute to the victims of barbaric acts of terror?

Perhaps the most telling moment of the night was Obama’s empty boast of reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and signing a deal with a tyrannical theocracy in Tehran. As he uttered these words, 10 US sailors were being held captive by the Iranian regime. There was nothing in his address about freeing American servicemen, and no acknowledgment of Iran’s role as the world’s biggest state sponsor of international terrorism, soon to be the recipient of a $150 billion windfall with the lifting of international sanctions

It would be wrong to describe President Obama’s swansong before Congress as a disappointment. The bar has been set so low by the Obama presidency that the expectations have become irreparably diminished. With good reason, just 25 percent of Americans believe their country is moving in the right direction. Americans don’t feel safer than they were eight years ago. This is a superpower that is losing confidence, both at home and abroad. President Obama’s presidency has acted as a break on American success, as a barrier to entrepreneurialism and innovation, and a deadweight on American global power.

The United States needs to lead again, and rediscover its sense of greatness, drive and creativity. Barack Obama delivered none of the above last night. He leaves behind an America in tremendous need of renewal and regeneration. And that must start with the White House itself. As Mr. Obama leaves the world stage, his successor will have to clear up the damage that has been left at home and abroad. His final State of the Union speech offered not hope and change, but an acute reminder of the failures of an administration that has led from behind, in the process leaving America weaker and more vulnerable.

Nile Gardiner is director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation.