Last night, President Obama delivered his final State of the Union address. Listening to his words urging a high minded civility in our political discourse reminded me of a photograph I once saw hanging on the office wall of a friend of mine who is a Member of Congress.
The picture was taken by the White House photographer and it shows Obama in the center of a group of Congressmen and Senators as they walk down the Capitol steps together during an important budget negotiation years ago. In the photograph, Obama’s face looks serious but otherwise unremarkable. It’s the faces of everyone else in the photograph that makes it so interesting.
Each and every other person in that picture looks either visibly angry or otherwise upset. Clearly, the snapshot sums up what it must be like negotiating and working with Barack Obama.
Over these past seven years, we’ve all witnessed the same pattern. Obama takes a jab or makes a snarky comment directed at Republicans and then follows it up with some high minded pronouncement in flowery language reminding us all the importance of playing nice.
The old adage “actions speak louder than words” fairly sums up the pattern. One glaring example of this was evident last night to those who caught a glimpse of the Supreme Court attendees at the event. Missing were the three conservative justices, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito. Their absence had nothing to do with a prior engagement or some rightwing conspiracy and everything to do with a previous State of the Union address wherein the president called them out and ridiculed their decision in the Citizens United campaign finance reform case. Since then, Alito in particular, has studiously avoided being embarrassed again.
So much for civility.
In his speech, Obama began by harkening back to the “change” part of his “hope and change” campaign mantra. While that certainly pleased the Democrats I’m sure, it’s the “hope” part that would have been more interesting to the general public and certainly harder for him to explain.
Remember that golden oldie from Obama’s earliest days in politics when he spoke at the 2004 Democrat Convention and said, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is a United States of America.”
That sounds very inspiring and unifying, doesn’t it? Certainly, those words offered some hope that the country would come together. And that might have happened if Obama had actually proven to be the transformative figure he pledged to be.
Unfortunately, in the end, he proved to be just another partisan and not a very nice one at times. Republicans grew tired of his constant reprimands, demands, and rebukes and eventually they either fought him harder or as his administration comes to a close try to shut him out altogether.
The fact is Obama can lecture all night long about civility, but his track record in this regard rings quite hollow to at least half the country.
It’s too bad that over seven years he never bothered to back up those words with actions of his own.