The Sunday Times: Read Obama’s lips: he has just skewered President Hillary
BACK in 1998, Nicole Kidman was playing in the West End, stunning audiences with her naked turn in The Blue Room. It was a performance memorably described by Charles Spencer, the Daily Telegraph critic, as “pure theatrical Viagra”.
Over in the United States, we were watching our own version of The Blue Room as the sex saga of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky played out almost nightly on our screens. But the only performance that really mattered that year was the night Clinton delivered his State of the Union speech to a Republican-dominated Congress.
The news about Clinton’s alleged affair with the 24-year-old White House intern had broken only a few days earlier. On the morning of his speech every newspaper in the country carried the headline: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”, referring to the president’s declaration on TV the night before.
Naturally, I tuned in that evening to watch Clinton’s performance before Congress. He was always a mesmerising speaker. There is something about his delivery. The fact that he so obviously enjoys politics, likes people and believes in himself has always shone through and made him compelling to watch.
Incredibly, despite the pressures, or possibly because of them, Clinton delivered. He was the lamest of lame ducks: a scandal-hit president, with two government shutdowns behind him, facing a hostile Congress. Yet he gave a speech that focused on what had been achieved and, more important, what was achievable still: welfare reform, dealing with the millennium bug, preserving social security. At one point he even had the Republicans applauding.
Of course, everybody knew that they were watching political theatre. But if felt real. By contrast, President Obama’s State of the Union last week just felt surreal.
His declaration at the beginning of the speech that he was going to avoid the petty focus of policies and politics made me think, at first, that he was doing one of his Coriolanus acts.
Obama’s annoyance, almost disdain for the commonalities of politics, such as answering critics and finding ways to compromise, has grown more prominent during his six years in power.
His reluctance to engage with the people stands in stark contrast to his glorious campaign of 2008, when he was more exciting than Theodore Roosevelt and more inspirational than John F Kennedy.
It was spellbinding to listen to Obama when he was in full flow. Who wouldn’t want to vote for a man who could deliver with conviction lines such as, “I believe that . . . the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us”? Today, however, it often seems as though Obama is angry at having to explain himself; just like Coriolanus: “I do beseech you, Let me o’erleap that custom.”
If anything, the State of the Union is one of the few occasions where a president can unleash his full rhetorical powers. Some of the most eloquent presidential lines in history can be traced back to the State of the Union. Abraham Lincoln in 1862: “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.” Lyndon Johnson in 1964: “This administration, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America” and George W Bush in 2002: “States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil.”
Historians will say of the 2015 speech that it contained one of the most effective zingers of all time: “I have no more campaigns to run. I know, because I won both of them.”
It was very witty, but not exactly presidential. Nor were they the words of someone who genuinely sees any possibilities in bipartisan government. On the other hand, they did reveal his state of mind. Rather than standing aloft in wounded pride, Obama was putting on his gloves for a fight.
But what was the fight, and with whom? In retrospect, the opening lines of the speech gave it away: “Our economy is growing at the fastest pace since 1999.” Meaning, since you-know-who and his wife were living in the White House. In other words, the Clintons continue to haunt Obama.
Right-wing commentators gleefully pounced on Obama’s pivot away from the centre as he outlined his vision for the “ideas and values” of his final months in office. These included ending a wildly popular tax-free savings scheme for university education and adding even more taxes to the wildly unpopular estate tax. He was handing a reason to unite to the Republicans and a reason to divide to the Democrats — or at least, a reason to divide the Hillary Clinton wing of the Democratic party.
Left-wing pundits disagreed, claiming that the impetus behind Obama’s speech wasn’t Hillary-bashing but an attempt to introduce a new economic approach known as “inclusive capitalism”, whereby inequality is restrained and productivity is encouraged.
But since there isn’t the slightest chance of any of his proposals being passed by Congress, this year’s State of the Union was simply a wish list for a future presidency. Instead of allowing Clinton to define her own agenda with a fresh Democratic narrative, Obama is effectively forcing her to follow his, or explain why not to the party’s hard left.
Without a designated heir, fear of having his legacy snatched away by the house of Clinton would be a sufficient reason for Obama to stab Hillary in the back now. But he doesn’t need to rehash old fights and slights to find a cause. Six months ago, Hillary launched an unprecedented attack against the administration in which she had served for five years. Commenting on Obama’s attempt to fashion his own foreign policy, she made the devastating putdown: “Great nations need organising principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organising principle.”
This was a blatant repudiation of the president. During his candidacy, Bush Sr never did anything like that to Ronald Reagan, nor Al Gore to Bill Clinton. Despite the media furore that ensued, the White House did not directly respond to Hillary’s attack on her former boss.
But after last week’s speech, it’s fair to say that Obama didn’t just get mad, he got even.