If we need another example of how upside-down our culture has become, we only have to look at the hype leading up to tonight’s State of the Union address by soon-to-be Former President Barack Obama. Even as the pundits all agree that the speech will be largely irrelevant and predictable, they can find little else to talk about.
Mr. Obama is expected to tell us how wonderful things are, how many of his goals he has achieved, and how much the quality of our lives has improved since he took office. The success of such an approach depends upon one of three factors:
Whether the president succeeds or not remains to be seen. But it’s illuminating to compare his style to other presidents and presidential hopefuls, past and present.
Jimmy Carter. In the summer of 1979, President Carter gave his most remembered address, the “Crisis in Confidence” speech, now known as the national “malaise” speech. He called upon Americans to reexamine their core values, to return to traditional morality and the virtue of self-sacrifice, to recognize the fallout of materialism and consumerism.
The speech was an immediate success. Calls and letters of support poured into the White House in unprecedented numbers. The country was galvanized, ready to take back its future.
So what happened next? Nothing. Or, perhaps, worse than nothing.
Two days after the speech, Mr. Carter fired his cabinet. Why? Perhaps as a sign of conviction, a show of resolve, or to signal a great leap forward.
But no one saw it that way. Instead, the upheaval in the White House appeared symptomatic of a state of confusion and a lack of direction. President Carter was right: there was a crisis of confidence, and he was at the heart of the crisis. His popularity plummeted, and his presidency was doomed.
Ronald Reagan. The next year, Ronald Reagan employed what would become one of his trademark phases, describing his vision for America “to be as a shining city upon a hill.”
His invocation was little different from Jimmy Carter’s. But Mr. Reagan projected the confidence and competence that Mr. Carter could never muster. Perhaps, on some level, people remembered Mr. Carter’s speech and saw in Ronald Reagan the man who could lead them toward recovering the glory of the past.
It seems, therefore, that the message is not enough. People may respond in the short term to a compelling message, but they look for a messenger who can rally them to action. Ronald Reagan may not have been a perfect president, but he changed the national mood for the better in a way that few presidents have, before or after.
Donald Trump. There’s nothing new in Mr. Trump’s message: The country is a mess could sum up the platform of every Republican candidate this year, and every candidate challenging the incumbent party in any election year.
In contrast to both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Mr. Trump has tailored to his own persona a message that almost worked for Ross Perot in 1992, and which may well prove successful now. Politicians can’t fix anything, he declares, finding the same universal agreement he would if he asserted that pigs can’t fly or dead men tell no tales.
But instead of proposing that we can do this together, Donald Trump proclaims: Leave it all to me; I’ll take care of everything, I’ll do it my way, and I’ll make it work. By pinpointing the perfect locus between national discontent and national apathy, Mr. Trump has made it easy for reactive voters to pledge their enthusiastic support without giving much thought to what they will be getting.
Barack Obama. First winning the presidency by exploiting the disillusionment of the Bush era with his mantra of hope and change, Mr. Obama won a second term after a lackluster performance mainly because the Republican party tore itself apart in the primaries — as it seems to be doing now.
Going into his last State of the Union address, the president appears genuinely convinced that he has achieved utopian success during his two terms in office. Consequently, he is expected to make his final oration before Congress and the world a victory lap — never mind that his presidency is not yet over and that the victory of it remains highly debatable.
Here are some expected highlights:
- The president will cite statistics to prove how he has steered us to economic recovery, even as most middle-class Americans find their fortunes more precarious than ever.
- He will trumpet the success of Obamacare, even though most Americans consider it a failure, if not a catastrophe.
- He will glory in negotiating peace with Iran, even though experts everywhere agree that his treaty has made the world a much more dangerous place.
- He will celebrate the commitment of world leaders to reverse the effects of climate change, even though the agreement is binding on no one and will likely achieve nothing.
- He will pat himself on the back for making America a place of greater freedom and tolerance, even as the country is more divided against itself than at any time since the civil war.
If American voters refuse to grow out of their infatuation with charismatic opportunists and well-intentioned fools, they will get more of the same, and they will deserve it. When people begin to not only look for but to demand both character and competence from their leaders then, perhaps, they might someone able to turn the ship of state toward fairer winds and calmer waters.