JANUARY 21, 2015 — As President Barack Obama strode into the House Chamber on Tuesday to present the penultimate State of the Union address of his checkered presidency, there was unsettling news around the world.
In the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, Shiite Houthi rebels overthrew the government of President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi, whom Obama has held out as a critical partner in this nation’s fight against the Islamic State.
In Tokyo, Japan’s Cabinet met to discuss the government’s response to a demand by the Islamic State for a $200 million ransom for two Japanese hostages who otherwise face beheading.
And, in Havana, the government of Raul Castro welcomed into port a Russian spy ship on the eve of talks with the Obama administration on normalized relations.
Obama had little to say about those three foreign-policy concerns during his annual remarks before a joint session of Congress. Instead, he spent much of his hour-long speech directing fire at the new Republican majority on Capitol Hill.
Indeed, he offered a number of proposals whose sole purpose, it seemed, was to provoke the GOP — including a $320 billion tax hike, a $60 billion federal-financed community college entitlement, and a nearly 40 percent increase in the federally mandated minimum wage.
Yes, the president mouthed perfunctory platitudes about pursuing “common purpose” with Republicans on a few selected issues. He also suggested that he and Republican leaders should agree to disagree on many more issues.
The problem is that Obama could barely conceal his disdain for his loyal opposition.
After six years in the White House, he still does not understand the basics of statesmanship: that at least a modicum of civility is required between two differing parties before they can even agree to disagree; and that, absent that modicum of civility, it is difficult for the opposing parties to reach accord even on the selected issues on which they actually agree.
The White House thinks that because Republicans last year passed a measure proposing higher education tax breaks, and considered a fee on large financial institutions as part of corporate tax reform, they should blithely embrace similar proposals by Obama in his State of the Union address.
But when the president uses his address to threaten the Republican Congress with vetoes, it hardly puts the majority in a mood to pass any of the president’s proposals, including those they would otherwise support if Obama was more of a uniter than divider.
We think it no coincidence that no president since Gerald Ford (who served only two years) has had fewer of his State of the Union proposals fully or partly enacted than Obama.
That those five presidents had a higher success rate than Obama has managed so far is not because they had a more agreeable Congress to work with.
It’s because Obama’s predecessors were able to disagree with the opposition party without being disagreeable — a leaderly trait Obama sorely lacks.