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The picayune president

Posted: February 2, 2014 - 2:39pm

What a waste of pomp and circumstance. The State of the Union had all the customary dignitaries, ritualistic applause, prime-time pre-emptions on broadcast TV — and even less interest than usual.

The checklist of the Obama presidency is clear enough: We’ve got the august trappings of imperial power. We’ve got the smack talk of ruling through “pen and phone.” We’ve got the distaste for the niceties of inconvenient laws and impatience with institutional checks and balances.

Yes, this imperial president has it all, except new or big ideas.

The fight against inequality, which was supposed to be a generation-defining struggle and consume the rest of President Barack Obama’s presidency as of a couple of weeks ago, barely rated in the State of the Union. The president used the word “inequality” all of three times.

His pollsters must have let him in on the fact that Americans don’t naturally resent other people’s good fortune. So he shifted ground on Tuesday night to emphasize opportunity instead of inequality. This is a welcome change, but it robbed the speech of any ideological charge. Instead, it was a lumpy bag full of hoary chestnuts, leftover proposals from prior State of the Union addresses, and microinitiatives so small they are barely visible to the naked eye.

It often felt like the interminable in the service of the insipid, but Obama was conversational and upbeat. It may be that pointlessness suits him.

Arguably, the big-ticket items were extending unemployment benefits and raising the minimum wage. Those aren’t exactly towering policy proposals, although they loomed large compared with the president’s other items.

He announced that he’s launching six more hubs for high-tech manufacturing. This was a bold doubling down on his announcement of the launch of three more manufacturing hubs in last year’s State of the Union.

He unveiled to the world the awkwardly named MyRA savings bonds, another retirement vehicle that may, as Yuval Levin of National Affairs writes, be difficult to distinguish from the already existing ones.

He made a pro forma nod to gun control, last year’s failed crusade.

He declared, “I’m reaching out to some of America’s leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing especially tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential.” Good for him, but this smacks of community organizing writ large.

He said he was entrusting Vice President Joe Biden with the reform of job-training programs. These programs have existed for decades, and billions of dollars have been spent on them. Yet the vice president of the United States has to be assigned to see that they “train Americans with the skills employers need, and match them to good jobs that need to be filled right now”?

After all the windup about how the president was going to hurtle thunderbolts of executive orders down at Congress from on high, the president’s headline unilateral act was imposing a minimum wage of $10.10 ... on federal contractors ... making new hires. Even his thunderbolts are trifling.

It may be that the president isn’t tipping his hand and will be sorely tempted to effectively legislate on his own, especially on immigration and climate change, as time passes. Certainly his base wants him to break whatever procedural eggs are necessary. It is always strange to hear Nancy Pelosi, a former speaker of the House, implore the president to trample on her coequal branch of government, so long as it’s in a good cause.

The content of the president’s speech recalled the vintage “small ball” of Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s. But Clinton’s microinitiatives were part of a broad feint to the center and a larger project to associate himself with middle-class values, both of which were meant to get him re-elected. It worked.

Obama’s resort to the picayune feels less like a strategy and more like a tacit admission of exhaustion. It’s good to be king, although it’s even better if you aren’t out of gas.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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