Apparently every pundit and journo on the planet is required to write a post about Obama’s State of the Union speech tonight. I’ve done posts on every SOTU for years now, but honestly, I was planning on skipping it this year. The social and political science on these matters is fairly clear: Presidential rhetoric (especially any individual speech) doesn’t have much of an effect on anything. It rarely changes public opinion or secures policy outcomes. And even if the rhetoric had some effect, the fact remains that in the American system of government the president has very little power over domestic policy. Even if he promised the moon, in the end we only get what our turd of a Congress accepts. The whole thing is show business, mainly serving as a stimulus package for the journalism industry.
But then I read this story in The Wall Street Journal. Blarg.
Apparently Obama’s going to use tonight’s speech to adopt a defensive posture in the wake of the Keystone XL decision. He’s going to try to reassure Serious People that he really, really does support fossil fuels. He’s expanding oil production. He’s expanding natural gas production. He’s expanding coal production. He’s not anti-energy! He looooves fossil fuels!
Why is he adopting the toxic conservative frame that expanding fossil fuel production is tantamount to supporting jobs and economic growth? Because doing so “could blunt industry and Republican criticism of his energy policies,” the WSJ reports.
[bangs head on desk]
I happen to read this just after getting through Ryan Lizza’s magisterial new piece in The New Yorker about how Obama’s dreams of “post-partisanship” were dashed. To me, the piece is a chronicle of Obama’s failure to grapple with post-truth politics. Again and again, he takes the cable-TV screaming of conservatives seriously and worries about how to “win them over.” He makes concessions on the stimulus, on TARP, on health care. But the level of invective from the right, and the total refusal to cooperate on anything, never abates. At all! Not even a little.
So for me it is incredibly disheartening if Obama thinks — in January 2012 — that adopting policies supported by conservatives and polluters will decrease the intensity of their attacks. I won’t write the post-truth posts all over again (see here, here, here), but I’ll just ask: When has an Obama policy designed to “blunt conservative attacks” ever successfully accomplished that goal? Please, name one time.
This is an election year. Conservatives and polluting industries do not want Obama to be reelected. Therefore, they are going to attack him as an energy-hating, job-destroying socialist in thrall to dirty hippies. Those attacks are not meaningfully connected to Obama’s actual policies — in fact you could argue that the actual policies are totally irrelevant to the attacks. (If he had approved Keystone XL, they would have made something else into an icon/talking point.) The effectiveness of the attacks does not hinge in any meaningful way on their truth value or their correspondence to reality. And the attacks will not be modified or diminished in any way by changes to Obama policies. He cannot “blunt” them with policy concessions.
I truly hope he’ll learn that before he’s out of office.