A week after his State of the Union address, political observers are still trying to figure out what President Obama's game is. That's because rhetorically and substantively, he seems to be in another world.
In his State of the Union address, Obama refused to even take note of the GOP's historic midterm gains and the fact the House and Senate are now both under Republican control. On foreign policy, Obama talked as if everything was going swimmingly abroad, prompting even the Washington Post's Dana Milbank to marvel at Obama's "disconnect" from what is happening in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Russia.
And Obama's policy agenda -- "free" community college, tax hikes, mandatory sick leave -- failed to take into account that it was dead-before-arrival in this Congress.
Three explanations dominate speculation about what Obama is up to. The first is that he's trying to lay the groundwork for his successor, presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton. The second is that he's trying to pad his legacy. The third is that he's trying to "troll" or bait the GOP into debating his agenda rather than pursuing its own. All are plausible, and none necessarily contradicts the others.
But there's a fourth interpretation: Obama can't leave his comfort zone. No president since Woodrow Wilson has been as enamored of abstract ideas or more sure that disagreement with him is proof of ignorance, bad faith or dogmatism. As a candidate, he insisted his real opponent was "cynicism," and in his address last week, he returned to this trite formulation, insisting again he was bravely battling the cynics.
Oscar Wilde famously defined a cynic as "a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." But the full quote, from his play "Lady Windermere's Fan," is better:
Cecil Graham asks, "What is a cynic?"
Lord Darlington responds, "A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."
To which Graham replies, "And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn't know the market price of any single thing."
The phrasing is a bit archaic to the modern ear, but the point is terribly relevant as Obama heads into the home stretch of his presidency. Obama is an ideological sentimentalist; he's great at identifying things of value, terrible at assessing the costs his esteem brings with it.
He likes community colleges. And he should; they do very important work. But his idea to subsidize them via an expanded federal program is blindingly oblivious to the costs -- fiscal and institutional -- it would impose, particularly given the fact that, as Reihan Salam notes at National Review Online, "net tuition and fees were $0 for [community college] students from households earning $60,000 or less." That is probably why Obama wants to let students who keep grades above a C-plus use Pell Grants and other aid for living expenses.
But such details don't matter when weighed against the idea of being in favor of "free" community college.
Over the weekend, the same president who boasted about increased oil and gas production days earlier in the State of the Union address -- despite doing nothing to make that possible -- announced he wants to designate part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a wilderness, in effect taking billions of barrels of oil off the table. He says it's worth it because ANWR is "pristine." His interior secretary compares it to Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, neither of which is pristine because, unlike ANWR, millions of people visit them each year.
A president who believed in negotiating might trade a ban on offshore arctic drilling for opening up ANWR, which would be much safer. He might also consult with Alaska's political leaders, who passionately oppose Obama's scheme.
If Obama believed in negotiating, he would have used the Keystone pipeline as a bargaining chip. He would trade the higher taxes he (always) wants for tax reform. He would acknowledge that the GOP won an election in 2014 and that its interests matter.
But negotiating requires acknowledging that people who disagree with you have a legitimate point of view. And such concessions to reality would take Obama out of his comfort zone. And anything outside of that is a no-go zone for this president.