One of Washington's favorite guessing games is: "What's the president really thinking?" Is Barack Obama a former community activist pushing a progressive agenda, a Goldilocks centrist aiming for the perfect bi-partisan porridge, or a reluctant militarist who's been forced to adopt key portions of the Bush agenda only to discover that he rather likes them? Perhaps he is simply all three. But he's not likely to show his cards during this year's State of the Union (SOTU) address.
The president has learned the hard way to be careful with his words. When he spoke during the campaign of "bitter" people who "cling to guns and religion" because of economic adversity, he was savaged for being elitist. Even if the president were to say what he's really thinking at this point, it would certainly not be in a SOTU, which is usually an opportunity for what one speechwriter has called "forgettable dissembling." It's also possible that after years in politics, the president no longer knows what he really believes and has so interwoven pragmatism with principle that, in the presidential calculus, what's right always equals what works.
Nevertheless, here's an attempt to look behind the speech's words to the speaker's thoughts. I've never met the man, never been invited to any White House confabs. I've never even been able to sit through one of his speeches. But my office is about six blocks away from the White House. So, like any good Washington pundit who imagines that proximity translates into perceptiveness, I feel entirely qualified to look into the president's eyes to get a sense of his soul. Here's what I believe President Obama will be thinking as he reads off the teleprompter:
I stand before you tonight to say that in my next two years in office I will focus like a laser beam on the economy, to make sure that America is competitive, that we are growing, and that we will create jobs not just for today but for the future
Well, I had to say that, didn't I? Frankly, I wish the unemployment rate was not at 9.1 percent, that Congress had passed a larger stimulus package followed by a job creation bill, and I didn't have to stand before the American people and pretend that I can change the economy during the rest of my term. The Republicans don't want the economy to improve over the next two years because that would kill them at the polls. The more people suffer, the more they vote tea party. So the next two years, on the congressional side, will be all about deficit reduction rather than preventing the economy from going into a deflationary spiral. Don't look to Congress for help with jobs, people! Trying to create jobs with no federal money is like fighting a gun battle with a knife.
Honestly, I'd rather talk to you all tonight about foreign policy. That's where I can excel. I don't have to deal with crazy Republicans or back-stabbing Democrats. I can just behave like an executive should behave -- decisively. Look how I handled the recent state visit with Chinese leader Hu Jintao. Sure, there was lots of blah-blah-blah, but in the end I extracted $45 billion in Chinese investments, which translates into 235,000 jobs. It's a sad comment on American politics that it's easier to enlist Beijing's help for job creation than to get Congress to pony up the funds.
What I really like doing is going abroad, meeting with foreign dignitaries, and making landmark speeches. People in other countries don't ask me about jobs, don't treat me like I'm some glorified employment counselor. As soon as I leave the country, I can talk about the big picture. I can talk about the abolition of nuclear weapons. I can talk about new engagement with the Muslim world. It's a shame I can't do that in a State of the Union address. I have to stick to the economic numbers, like I'm the Accountant-in-Chief.
What really gets my goat is that when I do go abroad, the U.S. press can only focus on the little things -- did I bow correctly, whose hand did I shake. I scored a deal with Medvedev on arms control. I managed to improve relations with India without upsetting Pakistan. We were able to put together a government in Iraq. I won the Nobel Peace Prize, for crying out loud! And the press goes after Michelle for touching the Queen of England's shoulder? Tell me: if we were white, would they pull that nonsense?
The world's people are hungry for a new kind of American leader. But back home, a quarter of all tea party sympathizers think I'm the anti-Christ, literally! I've continued almost all the major elements of the Bush counter-terrorism policy. We increased drone attacks in Pakistan. We surged in Afghanistan. We kept in place extraordinary rendition and endorsed military tribunals. And somehow, all of this translates in the minds of an appalling number of Americans into my being... Muslim.
Then there are the progressives. I never promised to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. They greeted my surge plan as if it were some great betrayal. I said all along that we were fighting the wrong war in Iraq and we should shift our attention to the right war in Afghanistan. Sure, I prefer diplomacy to war. For one thing, it's cheaper. But I'm no pacifist. We'll start pulling out troops from Afghanistan in July, and I'm emphasizing that in this speech. But as any strategist knows, you have to put down cover fire before withdrawal, and that's what the surge is all about.
Meanwhile, we haven't gone to war with Iran or North Korea. True, relations with those countries haven't exactly improved. But I haven't given any easy ammunition to the right by "appeasing" those countries or risked overextending our military capabilities by attempting more aggressive measures.
I'd love to talk about climate change and renewable energy and trade policy. I'm a wonk at heart. But I learned during the campaign that Americans are not interested in the details. They're like consumers who buy complicated electronics, don't bother to read the instruction manuals, and then complain that things don't work. They want me to fix the economy like they want the plumber to fix the leaky faucet or the electrician to repair the porch light. At our December press conference after the tax deal, I let Bill Clinton handle all the details of the package with the press. Bill's better at that, anyway. People don't feel he's lecturing. Maybe it's his accent.
After the attack in Tucson, some Democrats and Republicans are sitting side by side tonight in the chamber. Don't be fooled by this show of temporary affection. The next two years are going to be ugly. So, even though I'm not getting into the weeds with foreign policy in this speech, look for me to focus on international relations in the second half of my term. Like I said, I like to travel. And frankly, Afghanistan and Pakistan are looking a lot safer these days than Washington.
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