Perhaps the most striking thing about the 2015 State of the Union address was not the president at the podium but the audience in the seats. The joint session of Congress listening to President Obama Tuesday night included 83 fewer Democrats than the group that heard Obama's first address in 2009 — 69 fewer Democrats in the House and 14 fewer in the Senate. The scene in the House Chamber was a graphic reminder of the terrible toll the Obama years have taken on Capitol Hill Democrats.
Not that the president would ever acknowledge that. Indeed, in more than an hour of speaking, Obama never once acknowledged that there was a big election in November and that the leadership of the Senate has changed. Obama's silence on that political reality stood in stark contrast to George W. Bush's 2007 State of the Union address, in which he graciously and at some length acknowledged the Democrats' victory in the 2006 midterms. Bush said it was an honor to address Nancy Pelosi as "Madam Speaker." He spoke of the pride Pelosi's late father would have felt to see his daughter lead the House. "I congratulate the new Democrat majority," Bush said. "Congress has changed, but not our responsibilities."
If one cannot imagine Obama saying such a thing — well, he didn't.
Just as remarkable, against the backdrop of the Democratic electoral carnage of his years in office, was that the president's most memorable line of the night was a bit of ad-lib bragging about his own election victories. When Obama said, "I have no more campaigns to run," some Republicans snarkily began to applaud, whereupon the president shot back, "I know, because I won both of them." Some Democrats dutifully cheered Obama's comeback line, even though his victories ended up costing them a lot.
Beyond failing to acknowledge the new reality on Capitol Hill, Obama at times seemed equally out of touch with reality both in the nation and the world.
"In Iraq and Syria, American leadership — including our military power — is stopping ISIL's advance," Obama said, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The claim left some foreign policy observers aghast, since there is a general consensus that the Islamic State is making progress in the face of limited American air attacks. "That just isn't the case, according to military officials I've been speaking to," NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel said of Obama's statement. "[The Islamic State] are taking new territory." Of Obama's description of a world in which the Islamic State is retreating, Afghanistan is on the road to peace, and terrorists are on the run from South Asia to North Africa, Engel concluded, "It sounded like the president was outlining a world that he wishes we were all living in."
Obama sounded equally disconnected from reality on some domestic issues. For example, when discussing the nation's veterans, he said, "Already, we've made strides towards ensuring that every veteran has access to the highest quality care." A listener wouldn't know it from Obama's speech, but there has been a huge VA scandal since Obama's last State of the Union; his secretary of Veterans Affairs had to resign because of it. Veterans died waiting for treatment. All Obama said Wednesday night was, "We're slashing the backlog that had too many veterans waiting years to get the benefits they need." By "benefits," the president apparently meant "life-saving medical care."
At another point, Obama claimed credit for a "re-energized space program." The remark surely led to some jaws dropping among laid-off National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineers who believe Obama has nearly killed the place.
The president's final disconnect was perhaps the biggest. After a "vicious recession … tonight, we turn the page," Obama said. "With a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, booming energy production, we have risen from recession." For some Americans, that is the case, although even for them, "bustling" might be a bit much. For other Americans, the news is still pretty bad. When a recent Fox News poll asked, "For you and your family, does it feel like the recession is over, or does it feel like the country is still in a recession?" 64 percent of respondents said it feels like there is still a recession. Indeed, it's widely conceded that part of the reason the unemployment rate has fallen is because a core of discouraged workers dropped out of the job search altogether. So for many listeners, Obama's "turn the page" declaration will seem as out of touch as his claim that Islamic State's advance has been stopped.
Perhaps Richard Engel found the key to the president's nearly 7,000-word speech: Obama described the world as he wishes it were, not as it actually is. Indeed, in Obama's State of the Union, things are going so well that it's hard to imagine why voters would decisively turn control of Congress over to the opposition party — not that Obama would acknowledge that, either. Doing so would be a concession that something is still terribly wrong.