Obama’s State of the Onion


Barack Obama in 2014
(Image from

I’m saturated with Obama’s rhetoric. I’m not talking about his politics, which, in and of themselves, have been disappointing. The list of miscalculations, overreaching, and unfinished business is staggering: immigration reform, drone use, NSA, a stumbling health-care reformulation.

All that worries me. But his speeches put me to sleep.

I voted for him twice. The Republican alternative was unbearable—it still is. I thought Obama would be not just the first black president but the first one to be nonwhite; that is, that a multicolor America would find its leader in him. Oh, well! Latinos (I am one among 57 million) don’t have reason to cheer. At this point, I have the impression Obama will be, like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, better at being a postpresident. David Remnick is already discussing the type of mammoth book deal the president is likely to get (and Michelle, too). They are set for life.

I’m referring to the exhaustion I feel toward Obamatalk. Part of a diminishing audience, I watched another State of the Union. Or shall I call it State of the Onion? Increase the minimum wage for federal workers? It’s about time. How about giving an executive order to make Dreamers become like the rest of us? Anyway, I said no politics. Obama’s speeches, I get the impression, are built through thin layers of syntactical lucidity. You peel these layers and get smaller ones until you’re at the center—of what? They are pyrotechnic: impeccable syntax, professorial parlance, verbal coordination, a rich lexicon. Yet they sound hollow, trite, repetitive. They have no sense of humor. (Even Saturday Night Live’s Obama impersonator, Jay Pharaoh, is uninspired.)

Let me say it: I can’t believe I’m writing this. Obama’s verve in 2004 was transfixing. And his presidential campaign was messianic. Any one of those speeches would excite me in countless ways. The content was right. I was hypnotized by their metrics, their cadence. More than speeches, they were sermons in the best Baptist tradition. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” And, from his victory speech on the second Election Night: “I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.” I liked the guy’s perseverance.

So what? Lots of empty words. Those who attacked him early on as being made of words, not of deeds, might have been right. The most he has done in this term-and-a-third is speak. He’s walked us through the onion’s architecture … and little else. Are race relations better now? Mmm … visit Arizona, or else ask Travyon Martin’s family. Gun control: Go to see a movie in Florida. Wall Street magnates paying the price? It never happened. In fact, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street shows how far we are culturally from such punishment.

Yes, Obama was the one we were waiting for, and he was the one who made us realize we’ve been waiting for ourselves. Washington intransigence is worse today than—what? (I saw a sign the other day in response to Edward Snowden’s heroics: “Less political prisoners and more politicians in prison.”) We shouldn’t blame Obama’s problems on him alone but on a systemic bankruptcy. It isn’t just his fault, really; the whole political machine is in disrepair. And exhaustion is exhaustion: expected, unavoidable. Still, I, with 315 million, live inside a helium balloon surrounded by what Latinos call verborrea.

I never thought I would one day long for George W. Bush’s malapropisms. During his two terms, I ridiculed him: “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” And, “They misunderestimated me.” Like Cantinflas, the iconic Mexican comedian, W would get lost in his syntax. He would storm as he stammered. However, in retrospect, I like this unmasked stupidity. Plus, he spoke a second language: Spanish. Just as Clinton was heralded as truly the first black president, W was, until 9/11, the first Hispanic president. (Then everything turned into terror.)

Bush was monosyllabic whereas Obama is oversyllabic.

No doubt Obama has made his linguistic blunders, too. “Why can’t I just eat my waffle?” And, “You can put lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig.” They have no charm, though. Actually, his own overall charm is gone.

He had his chance of playing Messiah for a while. The preview was admirable, maybe part of Act 1. Now it’s clear it has been a lot of blah-blah-blah.

(What language will the actual Messiah speak when he shows up? I hope it isn’t Aramaic. At least in English we understand all the baloney.)

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