After working on the 2008 Obama campaign, and celebrating his election, I've spent much of the past six years defending the president. Fortunately, the 2015 State-of-the-Union address found the president in fine form. Hopefully, this speech marks the return of the "good" Obama I expected.
Why has President Obama been so inconsistent? Some say it's the nature of his job. Being president of the United States means Obama has to juggle several hot items at once. Meanwhile the well-oiled Republican propaganda machine has conditioned its audience to receive one negative message each day: "ISIS is coming! Ebola is coming! The barbarians (immigrants) are at the gates!"
Some say the president appears inconsistent because he is not, by nature, an adversarial person. (After all, he was once employed as a community organizer.) He wants to be conciliatory and tries to placate Republicans.
Some say Obama has a form of attention-deficit disorder. He's interested in politics but he lacks the focus or stamina to simultaneously be president of the United States and the leader of the Democratic Party. (And Democrats lack their own version of Karl Rove)
I believe Obama's performance seems inconsistent because Americans grade him based upon the issue de jour. At the moment the president has positive approval ratings because the public believes the economy is strong and therefore that Obama "will move the country in the right direction."
I'll grade Obama's State-of-the-Union address by first rating him in the four categories that correspond to the great challenges of 2015 and then giving him an overall grade.
Inequality: The president spent the majority of his State-of-the-Union address talking about various forms of inequality. He began by pointing out how robust the American economy is: "At this moment -- with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production -- we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth."
Obama touted "middle-class economics... the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules." He advocated creating jobs by investing in a "21st century infrastructure." (Obama plans to pay for the new infrastructure and a middle-class tax cut by closing tax loopholes that reward corporations for keeping profits abroad and allow "the top one percent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth.")
Obama urged Congress "to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work." Later he observed that Americans, "Condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender."
The tepid Republican response, delivered by Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, was that "[Americans] feel like they're working harder and harder, with less and less to show for it." Her one suggestion was approval of the "Keystone Jobs bill."
Grades: Obama gets an A; the president correctly described the economy and made his strongest statement yet on equality. Republicans get a D: They didn't acknowledge our robust economy and presented no job-creation ideas beyond approval of the Keystone pipeline that only generates 50 full-time jobs.
National Security: President Obama noted that the U.S. combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq have ended. He observed, "We've learned some costly lessons over the last thirteen years... Instead of sending large ground forces overseas, we're partnering with nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists who threaten America... America leads... with persistent, steady resolve."
The Republican response, delivered by Senator Ernst, was: "We know [terrorist] threats can't be just wished away... we need a comprehensive plan to defeat them."
Grades: Obama gets a B; the president talked about the major security items (terrorism, Iran, Cuba, Ebola...) but presented no plan for reducing the DOD budget or closing overseas bases. Republicans get an F: they falsely implied the president has no plan to defeat terrorists. What's the GOP plan?
Global Climate Change President Obama made his most forceful statement yet about Global Warming: "14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century... The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it."
The Republican response said nothing about global climate change.
Grades; Obama earned an A; Republicans an F.
Privacy President Obama said: "While some have moved on from the debates over our surveillance programs, I haven't... next month, we'll issue a report on how we're keeping our promise to keep our country safe while strengthening privacy."
The Republican response didn't mention the issue of privacy.
Grades: Obama gets a D-; out here on the Left Coast we believe the government is monitoring all of our digital communications. Republicans deserve an F.
Summary President Obama gave a powerful State-of-the-Union address. On the four central issues he graded as A, B, A, and D-. His overall grade was a B, dragged down by his failure to adequately address privacy concerns. Not surprisingly, the Republican grade was F; they didn't address the key issues.
Hopefully this signals the return of good Obama we voted for in 2008.