Toward the end of his State of the Union speech, President Obama observed that Washington politicians should learn from the example of the U.S. military: “When you’re marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails.”
Obama recalled the successful Navy SEAL mission that, under his watch, took out Osama bin Laden and observed, “The mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other — because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s someone behind you, watching your back.”
At first blush, it seemed like a stirring call to action. But when you look at the speech as a whole — and in context — it was a sad admission. Obama constantly carps about his lack of support from the Republican-led House. I think the president has decided that he cannot succeed in the face of political opposition. So he is not charging up those stairs.
Unless Washington walks in lock step behind Obama, he’s not going to try to get anything done.
Consider the White House decision on the Keystone XL pipeline. Last week, the administration announced that the president denied the project because of “a rushed and arbitrary deadline” of Feb. 21 embedded in a two-month extension of the 2011 payroll tax holiday. “I’m disappointed that Republicans in Congress forced this decision,” the president lamented.
Obama also lauded the military toward the beginning of his address. “They focus on the mission at hand. They work together,” he noted. “Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example.”
I can imagine it, but what I see is a president who nixed a shovel-ready, job-rich pipeline project that had been under review since 2008 and had passed State Department vetting twice — without exhausting every effort to approve the pipeline or extend the deadline.
Ryan Lizza wrote an illuminating piece on Obama’s “post-post-partisan presidency” in the current New Yorker. As Lizza reported, in 2004 and 2008 Obama framed himself as a Democrat who was above hyper-partisanship. Yet a year into his presidency, a Gallup poll showed Obama to be “the most polarizing first-year president in history — that is, the difference between Democratic approval of him and Republican disapproval was the highest ever recorded.”
Lizza wrongly, I think, concludes: “At this political juncture, there appears to be only one real model of effective governance in Washington: political dominance, in which a president with large majorities in Congress can push through an ambitious agenda.”
Last month, deputy press secretary Josh Earnest told Politico that extending the two-month payroll tax holiday “is essentially the last must-do item of business” the president has with Congress. After that, “in terms of the president’s relationship with Congress in 2012 … the president is no longer tied to Washington, D.C.”
In other words, Obama can govern only if Democrats control both houses of Congress. Until then, he has taken his marbles and gone home. As Steve Jobs said — when describing his dealings with Obama to biographer Walter Isaacson — “the president is very smart. But he kept explaining to us reasons why things can’t get done.”
Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.