“The state of our union is strong.”
I pen this hours before President Obama will deliver the political theater of the year, yet, I expect to hear that line, the punch line of the evening, to a sustained round of applause.
Every president going back more than 30 years has used the word “strong” in that context. Presumably, because Americans love to hear that — despite all our fights, cliffhangers and bickering — the state of our union is strong.
“The state of our union has never been stronger,” President George W. Bush said in January 2002, months after the Sept. 11 terror attacks and as the economy slipped into recession.
President Bill Clinton gave new meaning to overstatement during his final national address, in January 2000. “My fellow Americans,” Clinton grandly proclaimed, “the state of our union is stronger than it has ever been.”
Coming off a bitter impeachment battle, heading into an even more bitter election year in which the Democratic candidate largely sidelined him, it was a grandiose observation by Clinton on the pulse of his unwilling subjects.
But it was a portrayal that was very likely accurate.
The ’90s were a time Americans long for: A booming economy and an enviably low jobless record, coupled with peace talks breaking out in the Middle East and Northern Ireland, along with the luxury of boarding planes with a can of Coke and with your shoes on.
Bin Laden? A couple of missiles lobbed at a Sudanese aspirin factory and there’s no more bin Laden. Afghanistan? A laboratory for Islamic democracy. Iraq’s Saddam was becoming problematic, but as long as his meddling was restricted to Hamas, the U.N. oil-for-food program and that pesky British lawmaker, we were fine.
Indeed, the state of Clinton’s union was stronger than it has ever been. What followed was recession, terrorism, two wars, and a whole lot of bad blood.
But while the “state” may have become stronger since, the “union” has suffered immeasurably. Not since President Andrew Johnson in 1867, as the nation wrestled with Reconstruction following the Civil War, was our union so broken, our nation so torn apart by schoolyard taunts and color-war slogans.
Johnson’s declaration that “candor compels me to declare that at this time there is no union as our fathers understood the term, and as they meant it to be understood by us,” could well be repeated in today’s environment.
But it will not. Because the person empowered to deliver the verdict of the union’s unity is responsible for much of that disunity.
Clinton complained that Rush Limbaugh had “no truth detector” after his radio show, and Hillary Clinton grumbled about the “vast right-wing conspiracy” out to destroy her husband. But both accusations pale before the extent to which Obama has accused his political foes, or the vise he has engineered to annihilate the Republican party.
Reviewing the past presidential election, I am struck by the sheer number of personal attacks Obama and his uncoordinated super-PACs lathered onto Mitt Romney. They called him a “felon” who killed the wives of employees at companies his firm took over, and an outsourcer of U.S. jobs who made millions while jobs were lost.
And yet, Romney, whom the media loved to term the more negative campaigner in the 2012 race, kept his attack ads strictly on a policy level. But that got him nowhere with his opponent, who repeated ad nauseam the theme that Romney and the Republicans were vicious liars who distorted the incumbent’s record.
From calling Republicans “the enemy” on whom voters should “take revenge,” to practically forcing his way on ultra-liberal policy bills without getting any GOP input, it is ironic that the politician whose claim to fame was his call for unity and bipartisanship should be the president to preside over the most monumental call to battle in 150 years.
So while the state is strong, the union is barely limping along. It will take a prodigious doctor, one not tainted by Obamacare, to cure that.