Comparing Obama's 2016 SOTU and Bush's 2008 SOTU
Last night, President Obama gave his final State of the Union speech before Congress and some members of the Supreme Court. His speech was more about the long-term future and less about the immediate year remaining. The president's speech can be usefully compared to President George W. Bush's speech of 2008. This is important, because then-senator Obama gave an almost five-minute response to the president's speech in 2008.
In 2008, President Bush made a number of points that remain salient today. Interestingly, President Bush called upon Congress to pass legislation reining in Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the housing supports of the federal government. President Bush had repeatedly called for such reforms in his eight years as president. The Democratic control of the Senate and House beginning in January 2007 ensured that Barney Frank and Harry Reid would maintain the lax regulations encouraged by massive donations to the campaign of aspiring Senator Obama and other Democrats. Of course, that legislation did not pass, and those federal mortgage guarantee programs would inflate the housing bubble to its disastrous end in the summer of 2008 – all to be blamed on President Bush and not the Democratic Congress that refused the reforms.
In 2008, President Bush also celebrated the success of the Surge in Iraq that gave rise to the Anbar Awakening and a dramatic reduction in violence in Iraq from 2006 and 2007. He warned that premature reductions in U.S. forces in Iraq would lead to a resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq and elsewhere. Senator Obama responded by saying that Iraq was not a success and that history would judge President Bush negatively. In last night's speech, President Obama laid Vietnam and Iraq back to back as clear examples of American failure – confirming his response in 2008. The White House Twitter feed also celebrated as a success that President Obama has deployed 14,000 U.S. troops in Iraq today. This is apparently not an indication of failure or deception. President Obama refused to comment on the ten U.S. Navy sailors abducted by Iran and stuck to his strident line that "[n]o nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that's the path to ruin." Iran dared, and the president refused Speaker Ryan's request for a report and some personal reassurances for the public on the matter.
In 2016, President Obama did take time to point to his own accomplishments on the economy, energy, and foreign policy. He lamented his foremost regret – that the partisan tone of Washington has increased rather than decreased. This connected well with his rather partisan attack against President Bush in 2008, when he explained how the president was wrong about most of his judgments, from tax cuts to Iraq.
Obama's remarks last night emphasized that he had been successful – even though some in the chamber might disagree. He enjoyed that humorous insight into the evening with some frequency. Therein lies the character flaw that in many ways defines President Obama and drove higher his greatest disappointment of increased partisanship. He does not share credit. He alone brings change. Those who agree with him contribute to and aid that change, but his opponents have nothing to offer. Did President Obama think that the election of Republicans to the House in 2010 led to or helped reduce the deficit? The president did not acknowledge or suggest that. Did the president think that Republicans or their constituent states and citizens helped bring about two-dollar gas that the president thought so remarkable to comment upon last night? No. In fact, his not so distant mocking of two-dollar gas and Sarah Palin's ridiculous notion that such a goal was achievable was far from the text of his remarks last night. Did the president commend President Bush for providing emergency loans so the auto industry could, as he noted, sell more cars in 2015 than at any other time in its history? No. President Obama did all these things – even when he did not.
The president's egocentric view of the world, through which he sees himself as uniquely gifted at political insights that his opponents so sorely lack, is symptomatic not only of his presidency, but also of the broader intellectual culture that supports him. In fact, the most stirring aspect of the president's speech last night was a call for Americans to rediscover their formerly perceptive characters that they apparently possessed in some prior past – perhaps when Lincoln was president. And while the president and his supporters probably see those remarks as positive and idealistic, they epitomize a habit of failing to see how those who differed with him actually made America and the world a better place over the past eight years.
The moral superiority of the president was so evident that not surprisingly, the president was swept into his own emotions. By the end of the speech, he was raising his voice and shouting the conclusion. The speech contained attacks that were not subtle on Donald Trump and the political base of the nation that agrees with him. President Obama knows better, and America will be better, insofar as we agree with him.
The lead into the president's conclusion – just like President Bush's 2008 speech – was "we the people." Ostensibly, the president would again realize that 'we the people' are the government – not he. But that was not what the president explained last night. We can become the good people of America again, if we listen to him. But we must reject the leadership of those names we shall not mention tonight – like Donald Trump. It was a warning from the future by a political sage of vast intellectual superiority. The condescending have condescended.
President Obama has not matured much from the reactive remarks he made against President Bush in 2008 to this final State of the Union in 2016. This lack of growth led to his biggest regret – the growing impasses of partisanship in our nation.
Ben Voth is an associate professor and director of debate at Southern Methodist University. He is an adviser at the Bush Center and debate fellow for the Calvin Coolidge Foundation.