What were those lyrics, the ones that Janis Joplin famously sang? Oh yeah: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
Such was Barack Obama’s basic ‘tude last night, in his seventh State of the Union address. Having freed himself – finally! – from the illusion of achieving kumbaya with the fact-impaired Party of No, he essentially said, “I’ve got nothing left to lose, so, what the heck, I’m just gonna say what I stand for, and I’m gonna crow about my successes – the stuff Republicans have been consistently wrong about. And if they don’t like it, they can just kiss my rear.”
Granted, that’s not a formula for good governance, but we won’t get much of that during the next two years anyway – not with Congress in Republican hands, not with a slew of White House wannabees already scrambling for traction. So Obama felt free to be feisty. If nothing else, it was bravissimo theatre. I’d structure his little play this way:
Act 1. Early on, he said: “In the past year alone, about 10 million uninsured Americans finally gained the security of health coverage. At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits. Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years.”
Translation: “Choke on it, fools. You said that health care reform would kill jobs and explode the deficit. Wrong. You said that few people would bother to sign up. Wrong. You said that even if people did sign up, they wouldn’t pay the premiums. Wrong. You said that even if they did pay, that the premiums would go through the roof. Wrong, and, in fact, health costs are rising at the slowest rate since 1960. You said that private insurers would stay away. Wrong, they’re actually flooding in. You said that people wouldn’t be happy with their new coverage. Wrong, the polls say the opposite. You said Obamacare would be a ‘train wreck.’ Wrong. And this guy Boehner, sitting behind me? He said Obamacare would be ‘Armageddon.’ Wrong. See why I’m smiling at you all?”
And while Obama was celebrating the fact that 10 million previously uninsured Americans now have health coverage, there sat Boehner, looking like he was sucking on lemons, and there were his stone-faced Republicans colleagues, sitting on their hands. Yes, they hate Obama, we get that. But it was politically stupid to sit mute in front of the nation and convey the impression that they hate the idea of needy Americans getting health care.
Act 2. His riff about the reality of climate change was another kiss-my-rear: “I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what – I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe …. That’s why, over the past six years, we’ve done more than ever before to combat climate change …. And that’s why I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts.”
He was poking at Boehner; last year, when Boehner was asked whether he agreed with the scientific consensus that carbon emissions contribute to climate change, he replied, “I’m not qualified to debate the science.” But like the other “folks” that Obama was ridiculing, Boehner was merely trying to stay in sync with his science-averse caucus. Which is sizeable. In a new poll, sponsored by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, only 38 percent of conservative Republicans, and only 29 percent of tea-party Republicans, believe that climate change is occurring.
But among all registered voters, 66 percent are believers. Obama knows he has the wind at his back on that issue, which is why he arranged to have a climate change researcher sit with Michelle, and why he felt comfortable warning that if the Republicans try to screw with his climate change executive orders, he’ll smack them down – in the name of the science they refuse to acknowledge.
Act 3. Late in the speech, during the requisite SOTU passage about moving the nation forward, he said: “I have no more campaigns to run.” In a burst of celebratory spontaneity, the Republicans applauded. But with an ad lib for the ages, Obama came back with the ultimate kiss-my-rear, a three-point shot from 30 feet out: “I know – because I won both of ’em!”
By the way, in case you think that Obama should’ve acted humble and contrite, given the fact that the opposition party now controls Congress, here’s a useful factoid: The last time a president delivered a seventh SOTU to a Congress controlled by his own party, the year was 1939. When Ronald Reagan delivered his 1987 address, after the GOP lost the Senate, he didn’t trim his beliefs a whit.
Yes, life would be better if Obama and his foes saw eye to eye. At one point last night, Obama asked, “Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another…?” But by now he knows the deal. There’s zero chance that the recalcitrant faction will let him tax inherited wealth and capital gains in order to give tax breaks to the middle class. There’s zero chance that the recalcitrant faction will embrace health reform or climate change. So he felt freer to say what he believes, focusing “on the values at stake in the choices before us,” hoping to shape the contours of debate for 2016.
Or, as Janis sang, “Feelin’ good was good enough for me.”
Meanwhile, newly elected Senator Joni Ernst delivered the official GOP rebuttal. She vowed that her colleagues would repeal “failed policies like Obamacare.” (Inside the bubble, it’s still a train wreck.) And the GOP rebuttal was written before Obama’s speech was even released. That’s all you need to know.
And yeah, I know that Janis Joplin didn’t write Me and Bobby McGee; the author was Kris Kristofferson. But she made it famous.