Obama's Indulgent Victory Lap

Tuesday's surprisingly moving State of the Union address came from a man who no longer has to run any campaigns "cause he won 'em all." Someone in my neighborhood of Boston even shot off fireworks. Obama looked liberated and victorious. I could remember the man that I voted for back in 2008. The pundits will rightfully consider his proposals progressive, bait for the liberal base to fight for his agenda, or at least enough to keep Elizabeth Warren from blocking another appointee.

But underneath it all was a phrase that we won't be talking about very much at all: "For those who put in the effort." The American people "aren't asking for a handout," he reassured us. They just need "a little help." In this neoliberal worldview, poverty is not a systematic illness but instead an individual failing.

Don't get me wrong, there were several moments during the speech when I was, as I have been for the past seven years, swept up by the power of Obama's rhetoric. But then, if I paid close enough attention, he would always subtly remind me of his centrism and his unwavering self-focus. "My only agenda for the next two years is the same as the one I've had since the day I swore an oath on the steps of this Capitol  --  to do what I believe is best for America." And for a moment, in the brief space following such a self-assured declaration, I could understand the liberal arrogance that so infuriates conservatives about this president.

The speech was followed by a 10-minute monologue from Joni Ernst and her shellacked head of hair. Senator Ernst was as rosy-cheeked as a freshly-painted cadaver and reminded us of her own journey from poverty, something to do with bread bags and having only one pair of shoes. It reminded me of that poignant moment when Mariah Carey, while showing off her New York penthouse for MTV's Cribs, hunts around a massive shoe closet for her former "only pair of shoes." Of course, she can't find them. "Well, on to the Mermaid Room," she says, as the camera forgets.

So whether you're a political or an entertainment celebrity, you're obligated to show authenticity through past poverty. Why do we demand the earnest tale that Senator Ernst so stiffly told? Why does President Obama have to constantly refer to the "melting pot" of Hawaiian culture?

Because we, as Americans, like to believe in effort. Sell us a dream, sell us hope, sell us change, and we will follow you to the fiscal cliff. We don't like to believe what Senator Elizabeth Warren so often reminds us, "the system is rigged." We need our shining examples to give us hope and to stall policy changes with the myth of rugged individualism.

The system remains rigged because the president is the ultimate product of the system. Every speech is designed to reassure us that he's not one of those old-school tax-and-spend liberals. His policies rarely appeal to a higher authority, God or moral or otherwise, which leaves an opening for the opposition to challenge the system he continues to uphold. Tea Partiers can point to the past year just as easily as Obama can and say, look, we didn't do much at all. Congress was a dysfunctional disaster, and the country benefitted economically! Government functions best when it functions least.

So Obama, by always anticipating and conceding to the counterpoint that social programs are a handout to the poor, undercuts his own authority. He injects his desire to compromise and his own beliefs instead of appealing to human rights, or social justice, or even just sound economic policy. "Middle class economics works," he repeated over and over, as if trying to make the phrase catch on retroactively. So why hasn't he called it that since the beginning? Has he spent this whole time just trying to come up with a fresh rhetorical phrase?

I also worry that we will enthrone Obama as a great liberal president, who somehow changed the country's mind on gay marriage. It was a bit galling to hear him take credit for something that required him to "evolve" and then act as though he had been publicly hoping for the positive result all along.

Yes, you can argue convincingly that Obama's gradualism, his long-term strategic thinking, has delivered many progressive victories But you can just as easily say that his inability to govern in a manner in keeping with his rhetoric has left his followers disenchanted, which ultimately delivered Congress to the Republicans thanks to low voter turnout.

So as much as I enjoyed the tenor of the speech and the old feelings that he revived, I can't help but think it's too late for this Obama to show up now. 2015 isn't the second debate with Romney. Obama should have had the guts to stand up back during the midterms when it would have mattered to Democrats struggling to defend his record.

But I suppose it does feel good to sprint around the tracks, alone, when the race is already over.