Our President! Our Leader! Our King?

– #27 –

From the print edition of The Economist | Jan 28th 2012

Barack Obama’s big speech to Congress was mainly a bit of electioneering


It is becoming hard to remember that Barack Obama’s speeches were once described as inspiring, visionary and transformational. His state-of-the-union message on January 24th was none of those things. Then again, circumstances were against him. He said, as presidents must, that the state of the union was “getting stronger”. But everyone knows that the true state of the union is dire: 13m Americans are unemployed, the recovery is fragile and at any moment the economy could be blown sideways by a new gust of bad economic news from Europe. Nor, frankly, was this speech a useful guide to the administration’s legislative plans for the coming year. Since the mid-term elections of November 2010, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives has blocked most of the Democrats’ legislation, and will continue to do so, which means that the president’s plans count for little. To be understood, this speech needs to be seen for what it was: an audition for re-election.

Measured by that standard, how did he do? A president asking voters for four more years cannot just promise jam tomorrow. Since the Republicans want to make the coming election a referendum on his performance, Mr Obama has to brag about what he has already done. So, cloaked in praise for the armed services, he book-ended his speech with reminders that it was he who ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. He called his controversial decision to bail out Detroit’s car industry a “bet on American ingenuity” that had put General Motors “back on top as the world’s number one”. He claimed (this is a stretch) that his reform of banking regulation meant that taxpayers would never again have to bail out a financial institution too big to fail. And, recognising that millions of voters still fume about the bail-outs, he said he was creating a special team of prosecutors to track down and punish those responsible for the abusive lending that pumped up the housing bubble and led to the crash of 2008.