American politics has come to occupy a spectral plane of reality that bears little resemblance to the universe of fact and logic many of us are accustomed to. President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech on Tuesday -- and the widespread reaction to it -- is the ultimate confirmation that the gap between the virtual and the actual is unbridgeable. They no longer connect by any leap of imagination.
Obama presented Americans with a strongly argued case to press a progressive agenda that encompasses taxes, social spending and a variety of ancillary programs. It was rooted in the philosophical soil that has sustained the Democratic Party for nearly a century. It meets crying national needs. It conforms to principles of justice and decency that hold the Republic together. Unfortunately, it all amounted to little more than an exercise in rhetoric under current political realities.
Those realities are the ineluctable outcome of the Obama presidency's abandonment of those very ideas from the day he entered the White House. The speech is six years and three elections too late -- literally behind the times. That raises serious questions as to the authenticity of the apparent conviction with which it was delivered and, therefore, the president's motivations in deciding now to assume the mantle of reformer that he unceremoniously discarded after the 2008 election. Has he experienced an epiphany, like Paul on the road to Damascus? Surely, he is on the road constantly at home as well as abroad but we know nothing of any stunning incidents occurring on Air Force One. Is he trying to bolster the Democrats' chances in 2016 in a state of remorse of how low he has brought them in successive congressional elections and in state house races? Or, is Obama engaging in a campaign to shape his image for the afterlife of a former President in the public limelight and for posterity?
The last is most plausible. It also is the explanation ignored by the commentariat who are content to take the President's declarations at face value. They, too, occupy a spectral space in which whatever happens today is disconnected from the recent past, to be viewed in existential isolation from the protagonist or his setting, and whose meaning for the incoherence of American public life goes unrecognized.
For those whose historical memory is short, here's a quick cantor through the Obama record.
This is the man whose response to the Great Financial Crisis was to appoint to every position of authority persons who themselves had participated directly in its occurrence or its facilitation: Rubin, Summers, Geithner, et al. Obama actively opposed and succeeded in thwarting every serious legislative or regulatory attempt to reform the system. He is the man who, along with Attorney general Eric Holder, refused to pursue criminal prosecution of even the most egregious miscreants and then promulgated the doctrine that they could be made immune from prosecution if conviction might damage the national economy. Obama is the man who has put Social Security and Medicare in jeopardy by committing himself to deals with the Republican leadership that would markedly cut back benefits under both programs. This is the man who reneged on a pledge to workers that he would back moves that favor unionization. This is the man whose version of health care reform ruled out a public option but instead was built on a series of behind the scenes deals with Big Pharma and the health industry that pads their profits. This is the man who has all but declared war on public school teachers in stigmatizing them as the cause of what ails American education while campaigning relentlessly for the dubious panacea of profit driven charter schools.
One can go on and on. Obama has governed as what used to be called a Moderate Republican - leaving the long-standing, natural Democratic constituency in the dust. Even now, simultaneously with his progressive pivot, he has given two gift wrapped presents to the financial interests: one, lobbying with Jaime Dimon to gut a key provision of Dodd-Frank that put a barrier, albeit feeble, between the big banks trading on their account and trading on clients' account; and, two, working with Wall Streeter Mary Jo White whom he appointed as head of the Security Exchange Commission to void regulations that were designed to restrict trading in volatile derivatives.
In the State of the Union speech itself, Obama made a strong plea for acquiescence is his prized Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement (and implicitly its Euro-American) that he has been negotiating in concert with business leaders while keeping all other parties including Democratic Congressional leaders in the dark. The proposed treaty's main impact and intent is to undercut all national authorities' regularity power across the board by ensconcing a corporate right to challenge any regulation in a supranational court whose members they would help choose.
There is no conceivable way that an all court press for passage of the TPP can be reconciled with Obama's new-found progressive philosophy and vow of a dedication to reducing inequality in America.
What of the political implications for 2016? Certainly, the publicity given progressive ideas and the argument for them means that the issue cannot be ignored by the candidates -- as Democrats like Hillary Clinton as well as Republicans have been inclined to do. The latter will use the current legislative session to undermine any concrete proposals to implement the agenda, will try to discredit the underlying ideas, and distract by stressing various social issues that play to their strength and their constituency. The challenge for the Democrats is greater. For the Clintons turned their backs years again on the very thinking and interests that the State of the Union speech is reanimating. Hillary thought nothing of pocketing $400,000 from Goldman Sachs for sitting next to Lloyd Blankfein on a stage for half an hour soothing an audience of fat cat clients.
Now, that image could be a liability were she to face a rival in the Democratic primaries. That looks unlikely, though, now that Elizabeth Warren has taken her name out of consideration and nobody else is stretching in the paddock. There is Bernie Sanders -- a genuine liberal who could make things very hot for Clinton in debates. Indeed, one could argue that such might be the best thing that could happen for her. Her blemished image and limp public persona would be invigorated and Democratic voters reenergized. But Sanders is a maverick outsider.
Was this Obama's Machiavellian intent? That seems highly improbable on several counts. Obama always has been a political loner who distances himself from his party. That was true in 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014. In fact, back in 2010 his Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was smugly telling confidants that a Republican victory in the House would be to the advantage of the White House since President Obama no longer would be constrained to placate the progressives whom they both disdained.
So back to the question of why Obama "did it?" Following the Sherlock Holmesian axiom that once you have eliminated all other possibilities, whatever is left - however bizarre - is the truth, we are left with the conclusion that it was all about Obama. His imagined "legacy," his public profile over the next 30 years in the public eye, what will get him the attention and adulation that he craves. Perhaps, he simply concluded that recasting himself as a liberal carried better possibilities than the fuzzy picture of a middle-of-the-roader who played footsy with the business establishment, kow-towed to the Pentagon and the Intelligence agencies, and couldn't ends the endless wars on terror.
By retracing his steps, he hopes to place himself before the public as he was in 2008 -- a Messiah without message or mission -- but a Messiah nonetheless.