Washington's Version of the Awards Ceremony

It's like the Academy Awards without awards or celebrities or high style. It's like the Grammys without music or celebrities or outré style. It's like Sundance without screenings or deals or celebrities or coolness. The State of the Union is Washington's version of the president's awards ceremony. It's an endless acceptance speech. And on foreign and defense policy, it's especially boring five years into a presidency defined by defining down expectations of America in the world.

The White House was madly advancing that the president would be upbeat and not confrontational; it came off sounding weary and as though he were talking about somebody else's government. The president actually congratulated himself for the lowest unemployment in five years, as though all five weren't his to account for. He emphasized the need to close Guantanamo and reduce reliance on drone warfare and rein in surveillance, as though he hadn't been in charge of them these last five years.

On international issues, the speech was embarrassingly solipsistic. The president talked about beating other countries out for high-tech manufacturing, going all-in on innovation to "own the global economy tomorrow." He gloated about America outpacing investment in China (the veracity of which is subject to some dispute). I wish the president could comfortably wear pride in our country without sounding like Alec Baldwin in the Major League Baseball commercial bragging about the Yankees -- "lawn mowers don't have a rivalry with grass."

On one national security issue the president was very direct: The way we have fought the wars and Iraq and Afghanistan was playing into the terrorists' hands, calling them "large-scale deployments that drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism." Again, he was the commander in chief for the last five years in which we fought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with large-scale deployments. It is an extraordinary statement that he believes the way his own administration has conducted those wars drained our strength and fostered the very enemy we are fighting.

In addition to the implications for the wars, the president's adamance that large-scale deployments not only drain our strength but help the enemy has enormous significance for the debate about what types and numbers of military forces we need. If I were the Army, I'd be rethinking the force structure plans, because with the president's State of the Union address, the bottom just fell out of their justification for 490,000 active-duty soldiers.

Again tonight the president shined a bright light on a wounded soldier. I wish the president could talk about the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen without making them all sound like disabled veterans. The men and women fighting our wars deserve more than our pity, more even than our respect: They deserve our understanding and our familiarity. But the way this administration talks about veterans actually increases the distance between Americans and our military, makes them seem different from the rest of us instead of part of us, and that's actually a disservice to them.

At least the president didn't petulantly announce the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan after 2014 -- but he did say that the war would be over by the end of the year, though we might leave "a small force of Americans" to train Afghans and conduct counterterrorism missions. Hardly a ringing endorsement of his own policy, and unclear how it would demonstrate to our enemies the resolve he claims to have.

Larry Downing-Pool/Getty Images

Shadow Government

President Prioritizes Popularity Over Legacy

Faced with the threat that his low popularity could hurt his party and the reality that there is no money to spend on new initiatives, President Obama chose in his State of Union address to go small and stress action, no matter how fleeting, rather than working across the aisle to achieve permanent policy changes. This may mitigate Democratic losses at the ballot box in the fall, but doing so sacrifices the ripe opportunity to reignite economic vitality by removing uncertainty about debt and immigration, while sparking growth through expanded trade.

There is no doubt that President Obama's low poll numbers are in significant part due to his inability to get things done. It is also clear that Republicans show little enthusiasm to embrace his prescriptions, whether raising the minimum wage, a further extension of unemployment insurance, or increased funding for early childhood education.

Possible executive orders increasing pay for some federal workers, ordering the Treasury to create the "MyRA" retirement savings account, and working with Governors to expand early childhood education can be trumpeted as action and may boost the President's standing temporarily, but they have little lasting impact.

Bypassing Congress could backfire for the President and his Democratic allies as well, as it could inadvertently boost the popularity of Congress as the media focus shifts from legislative obstruction to executive fiat. 

More importantly, this tactical approach could miss the opportunity to take bold actions that would be to the strategic advantage to the entire nation. The State of the Union did not present a plan to address the nation's long-term debt. Immigration reform and trade expansion -- two proposals that could boost the economy and create jobs -- received only passing attention.

Currently the most serious impediment to business investment and hiring is the great uncertainty over how the country will ultimately address its unsustainable fiscal future as baby boomer retirements balloon federal deficits. Nearly every political leader would confide in private that there is a deal to be had that includes both revenue generating tax reform and a reduction in entitlement obligations. Yet this opportunity was ignored last night.

Failing to address this looming financial reality will  make the recent expansion of federal healthcare obligations seem like reckless folly. Conversely, taking the lead now to address our long-term fiscal imbalances would help the country afford President Obama's signature policy achievement and add another significant legacy accomplishment to his belt.

While only addressed in passing, the president's approach to immigration may in the end prove fruitful. By only lightly touching on it, President Obama perhaps increased the likelihood of success. 

Aggressively pushing for results could jeopardize action by Republicans.  With Speaker Boehner telegraphing his hope to begin work, now is not the time for Obama to derail efforts in the House by inserting himself into the debate. 

Perhaps most disappointing omission in the State of the Union address was the issue of trade.  While he mentioned the need for Trade Promotion Authority, he did not even mention the pending Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). 

These economic propellants are essential to the nation's job creators. The Administration's able Trade Representative Michael Froman has been vocal about their resolve to advance. Yet accomplishing these transformative agreements will not happen without the president bringing Congress and the public along with him.


Passing NAFTA was one of President Clinton's most significant accomplishments.  Passing TPP and TTIP could be amongst President Obama's most lasting and beneficial legacies, but they will not happen unless he champions their benefits.

Trade expansion, with its potential to jumpstart economic growth and project power around the world, has been left in the shadows to its detriment.  Giving it short shrift last night was a disappointment.

Yes, taking a series of small steps and shouting about them from the rooftops may slow the decline in the president's poll numbers and help Democrats at the margins in Congressional contests this fall. But going small did a disservice to the big problems the nation faces.

Moving towards the twilight of his administration, President Obama may find that he missed a golden opportunity to build a lasting legacy that could put this nation on a path to deliver enriching opportunities for its citizens and strong leadership to the world.