No one is listening to Obama now.

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Noonan: The Sleepiness of a Hollow Legend

The State of the Union is a grand tradition—but only if people are listening.

By

PEGGY NOONAN

 

Jan. 23, 2014 6:16 p.m. ET
So the president’s State of the Union address is Tuesday night, and it’s always such a promising moment, a chance to wake everyone up and say “This I believe” and “Here we stand.” The networks are focused and alert, waiting to be filled with a president’s excellence and depth. It’s a chance for the American president to say whatever the storm, however high the seas, the union stands “rock-bottomed and copper-sheathed, one and indivisible.” That’s how Stephen Vincent Benet had Daniel Webster put it, in a play.In a State of the Union a president tries to put his stamp on things. Here we are, here’s where we’re going, all roads lead forward. We can face whatever test, meet whatever challenge, united in the desire that we be the greatest nation in the history of man . . .What great moments this tradition has given us. JFK’s father thought his son’s first State of the Union was better than his Inaugural Address. It had a warmth. “Mr. Speaker . . . it is a pleasure to return from whence I came. You are among my oldest friends in Washington—and this House is my oldest home.” Friends, home—another era. LBJ taking the reins in 1964: “Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined.” And you know, that’s what it became. Nixon enjoyed dilating on history, and was interesting when he did.Reagan dazzled, though he told his diary he never got used to it: “I’ve made a mil. speeches in every kind of place to every kind of audience. Somehow there’s a thing about entering that chamber—goose bumps & a quiver.” There was his speech after he’d recovered from being shot—brio and gallantry. And of course Lenny Skutnik. Just before Reagan’s 1982 speech Mr. Skutnik, a government worker, saw Air Florida Flight 90 go into the Potomac. As others watched from the banks of the frozen river, Mr. Skutnik threw off his coat, dived in and swam like a golden retriever to save passengers. The night of the speech he was up there in the gallery next to the first lady, and when Reagan pointed him out the chamber exploded. This nice, quiet man who’d gone uncelebrated all his professional life, and then one day circumstances came together and he showed that beneath the bureaucrat’s clothing was the beating heart of a hero.

***

Well. History still beckons, waiting to be made. The great unstated question of today: Can America come back, reclaim her old spirit, confidence and joy, can we make things again, build them, grow, create, push out into the new?

And here I think: Oh dear.

Because when I imagine Barack Obama’s State of the Union, I see a handsome, dignified man standing at the podium and behind him Joe Biden, sleeping. And next to him John Boehner, snoring. And arrayed before the president the members, napping.

Martin Kozlowski

No one’s really listening to the president now. He has been for five years a nonstop wind-up talk machine. Most of it has been facile, bland, the same rounded words and rounded sentiments, the same soft accusations and excuses. I see him enjoying the sound of his voice as the network newsman leans forward eagerly, intently, nodding at the pearls, enacting interest, for this is the president and he is the anchorman and surely something important is being said with two such important men engaged.

But nothing interesting was being said! Looking back on this presidency, it has from the beginning been a 17,000 word New Yorker piece in which, calmly, sonorously, with his lovely intelligent voice, the president says nothing, or little that is helpful, insightful or believable. “I’m not a particularly ideological person.” “It’s hard to anticipate events over the next three years.” “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now.” “I am comfortable with complexity.” “Our capacity to do some good . . . is unsurpassed, even if nobody is paying attention.”

Nobody is!

He gave a speech on the National Security Agency, that bitterly contested issue, the other day. Pew Research found half of those polled didn’t notice. National Journal’s Dustin Volz wrote that Americans greeted the speech with “collective indifference and broad skepticism.” Of the 1 in 10 who’d followed it, more than 70% doubted his proposals would help protect privacy.

The bigger problem is that the president stands up there Tuesday night with ObamaCarenot a hazy promise but a fact. People now know it was badly thought, badly written and disastrously executed. It was supposed to make life better by expanding coverage. It has made it worse, by throwing people off coverage. And—as we all know now but did not last year—the program was passed only with the aid of a giant lie. Now everyone knows if you liked your plan, your doctor, your deductible, you can’t keep them.

When the central domestic fact of your presidency was a fraud, people won’t listen to you anymore.

The poor speechwriters. They are always just a little more in touch with public sentiment than a president can be—they get to move around in the world, they know what people are saying. They have to imitate the optimism of the speeches of yore, they have to rouse. They are the ones who know what a heavy freaking lift it is, what an impossible chore. And they have to do it with idiots in the staffing process scrawling on the margins of the draft: “More applause lines!” The speechwriters know the answer is fewer applause lines, more thought, more humility and candor. Americans aren’t impressed anymore by congressmen taking to their feet and cheering. They look as if they have electric buzzers on their butts that shoot them into the air when the applause line comes. “Now I have to get up and enact enthusiasm” is what they look like they’re thinking. While the other party thinks “Now we have to get up too, because what he said was anodyne and patriotic and we can’t not stand up for that.” And they applaud, diffidently, because they don’t want the folks back home—the few who are watching—to say they looked a little too enthusiastic about the guy who just cost them their insurance.

They are all enacting. They are all replicating. They’re all imitating the past.

You know when we will know America is starting to come back? When some day the sergeant at arms bellows: “Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States” and the camera shows a bubble of suits and one person emerges from the pack and walks into the chamber and you’re watching at home and you find yourself—against everything you know, against all the accumulated knowledge of the past—interested. It’ll take you aback when you realize you’re interested in what he’ll say! And the members won’t just be enacting, they’ll be leaning forward to hear.

And the president will speak, and what he says will be pertinent to the problems of the United States of America. And thoughtful. And he’ll offer ideas, and you’ll think: “Hey, that sounds right.”

That is when you’ll know America just might come back.

Until then, as John Dickerson just put it: Barack Obama, Inaction Figure.

Zzzzzzz.

Noonan: ObamaCare Takes On Water.

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ObamaCare Takes On Water.

By Peggy Noonan

We should not lose The Headline in the day-to-day headlines. This is big history, not small. The ObamaCare rollout is a disaster for the White House, not a problem or a challenge or an embarrassment, not a gaffe or a bad few weeks. It is a political disaster, and the only question is whether it is partially recoverable, meaning the system can be made to work in a generally satisfactory way in the next few weeks. But—it has to be repeated—they had 3½ years after passage of the Affordable Care Act to make the program into something the American people could register for and feel they were benefiting from. Three and a half years! They had a long-declared start date: It would all go live Oct. 1, 2013, and everyone in the government, every contractor and consultant, knew it. The president put the meaning of his presidency into the program—it informally carries his name, it is his brand. It was unveiled with great fanfare, and it didn’t work. For almost anybody. Crashed systems, frozen screens, phone registration that prompted you back to the site that sent you to the 800 number, like a high-tech Möbius strip.

All this from the world’s greatest, most technologically sophisticated nation, the one that invented the computer and the Internet. And from a government that is able to demand and channel a great deal of the people’s wealth.

So you’d think it would sort of work. And it didn’t. Which is a disaster.

Even though it’s huge, and those who are reporting the story every day are, by and large, seasoned and have seen a few things, no one seems to know how it will end. Because it’s new territory. Does anyone believe the whole technological side can be fixed quickly? No. The president may eventually accept a brief delay in implementation—it is almost unbelievable that he will not—but does anyone think that the economics of the ACA, the content as set out and expressed on the sites, will flow smoothly, coherently, and fully satisfy the objectives of expanding health-insurance coverage while lowering its cost? You might believe that, but early reports of sticker shock, high deductibles and cancelled coverage are not promising. Does anyone think the president will back off and delay the program for enough time not only to get the technological side going but seriously improve the economics? No. So we’re not only in the middle of a political disaster, we’re in the middle of a mystery. What happens if this whole thing continues not to work? What do we do then?

It hardly matters if anyone is fired. That’s the fifth paragraph in the Wikipedia history, or the 10th. Yes, a firing would be good democratic form, and it would acknowledge the idea of accountability—someone or some persons failed on a historic level and were removed. It would take some heat off the White House—”Look, we’re doing something!”—so it’s surprising they haven’t done it and odd the Republicans are clamoring for it. But who would want to be the new HHS secretary? Who would take that job?

 

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Martin Kozlowski

It was Bill Daley—accomplished political player, former commerce secretary and, most killingly, former chief of staff of President Obama, who Thursday, on “CBS This Morning,” admitted the scale of the problem. Asked whether Kathleen Sebelius should be fired, he said: “To me that’s kind of like firing Captain Smith on the Titanic after it hit the iceberg.”

The Titanic. Some will see his comments as disloyal. Actually they were candid and realistic. Although in fairness, the Titanic at least had three good days, and Edward Smith chose to go down with the ship.

He didn’t deny the waters were icy; he failed to slow his ship, failed to show heightened concern. Mrs. Sebelius did not show overwhelming confidence in the days before the debut—there was no “God himself couldn’t sink this program.” She repeated her lines in a way that seemed almost furtive, appearing not confident but confused, and almost guiltily stubborn. Her message was almost always the same: There are no icebergs ahead.

Norman Ornstein in National Journal this week reminds us of Democratic Sen. Max Baucus’s iceberg warning—actually “train wreck”—at a hearing six months ago, in April. He warned implementation of ObamaCare could be a disaster. He told Mrs. Sebelius: “I understand you’ve hired a contractor. I’m just worried that that’s going to be money down the drain because contractors like to make money more than they like to do anything else. That’s their job.” A lot of agencies are involved, he said, people are going to get confused, more simplicity is needed.

He was right. I happened to reread his warning while the House Energy and Commerce Committee questioned the four major contractors on the ObamaCare sites. The most pertinent query came from Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who asked the contractors to put on paper, and under oath, exactly how much money they had made from the federal government so far, and exactly how much they stand to make now, as they fix the sites, and in the future.

There are more questions on the failure to launch. Did Mrs. Sebelius and her top staffers know that the system was not ready and likely to fail? If they knew, did they not tell the White House? If they didn’t know, how did it happen that they didn’t? If the White House knew of the likelihood of a coming failure, why did they go full steam ahead? And if they didn’t know, why?

Was there some degree of fabulism, or magical thinking, or reliance on blind luck within the White House and the greater administration? Many important people in the administration, and those contracting with it from the outside, would have had to ignore various signs of a coming failure. Did some of them know or have reason to know problems were both present and coming, and mislead or fail to inform their peers or superiors?

And there is the enduring mystery of why the president, who in his career has attempted to persuade the American people to have greater faith in and reliance on the federal government’s ability to help, continues to go forward with an astounding lack of interest in the reputation of government.

He talks but he doesn’t implement, never makes it work. He allows the IRS under his watch to be humiliated by scandal, waste, ill judgements prompted by ideological assumptions. He allows his signature program, the one that will make his name in the history books, to debut in failure. In response he says bland, rounded words that leave you wondering what just got said.

We’re all reading of Jack Kennedy. He stayed up nights with self-recrimination after failure. “How could I have been so stupid?” he asked about the Bay of Pigs. A foreseeable mistake and he’d blown it, listened to the wrong people, made the wrong judgments. That man suffered over his missteps. He worried about his reputation, and the reputation of his government, and of America.

It is disorienting to not see this in a president. It is another thing about this story that feels not only historic, but historically strange.