WASHINGTON — To those reporters who cover the White House, there were no surprises in the President’s State of the Union message tonight. As he did in his last session with reporters before departing for Christmas vacation in Hawaii (when he brought out Americans impacted by the failure to extend the payroll tax cut to move Congress to act) and in the two preceding press conferences, Mr. Obama again led with the “us vs. them” rhetoric and class warfare commentary that have become his signature.
He told the story of billionaire Warren Buffett paying less taxes than his secretary, invoked the “Buffett Rule” of millionaires paying their “fair share,” and, for the umpteenth time, declared that “people like me” should pay higher taxes.
“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by,” he said while addressing Congress and a national television audience, “Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. What’s at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. We have to reclaim them.”
And as both the President and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney have done on numerous occasions, Mr. Obama made the not-so-veiled references to the policies of the predecessor Bush Administration. He reminded lawmakers and viewers to recall “how we got here,” when “[f]olks at the top saw their incomes rise like never before, but most hardworking Americans struggled with costs that were growing, paychecks that weren’t, and personal debt that kept piling up.”
While it was all quite familiar to those who have reported on or even watched recent speeches by Obama, his State of the Union remarks tonight took on special meaning because they were delivered as the election year commences. It was no surprise that historians such as David Pietrusza, author of the new book “1948” on the election that year, would easily spell out the similarities between Obama’ address and the fighting remarks of Harry Truman before Congress as he prepared for a difficult re-election battle.
Referring to the bad old days of the Bush Administration, the Democratic President said that of its economic policy: “It was wrong. It was irresponsible. And it plunged our economy into a crisis that put millions out of work, saddled us with more debt, and left innocent, hard-working Americans holding the bag. In the six months before I took office, we lost nearly four million jobs. And we lost another four million before our policies were in full effect.”
You get the picture. As one cynical Midwestern Republican put it while watching the address, “This is ‘BOMFOG’”—citing the old acronym for meaningless rhetoric that stands for “Brotherhood of Man, Fatherhood of God.”
To be fair, the State of the Union address tonight did include some measures aside from those dealing with class warfare. In calling on “every State to require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn eighteen,” Obama spoke of education as if it were a federal issue rather than something to be dealt with by states or local school boards.
At different times in his remarks, the President announced “the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit that will be charged with investigating unfair trade practices in countries like China,” and “a Financial Crimes Unit of highly trained investigators to crack down on large-scale fraud and protect people’s investments.” In addition, he said that he is “asking [his] Attorney General to create a special unit of federal prosecutors and leading state attorneys general to expand our investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis.”
And, yes, he spoke openly of the nomination of former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray as the new “watchdog” for consumers—even as that recess appointment is still enmeshed in controversy and faces a legal challenge.
In short, he was invoking the familiar Democratic refrain of a new government program for every problem—calls that would seem to contradict his later call for a “leaner, quicker and more responsive” bureaucracy in government.
There was no cry of “You lie!” from any lawmakers, as there was from Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) during an Obama address two years ago. Several Republican lawmakers—notably John McCain during the remarks on illegal immigration—refused to join Democrats in standing and applauding at different points in the speech. And, as the press noted, noticeably absent from the audience were three conservative Supreme Court justices—notably Samuel Alito, who vigorously shook his head during the celebrated criticism of the Court’s landmark campaign finance decision (Citizens United) by Obama in last year’s State of the Union address.
What stood out the most was the “class warfare.” Reporters who cover the President are quite used to it by now. As the campaign progresses, most Americans will also get used it to as well.