Our Views: For Obama, his agenda

The State of the Union is strong, unless you have to go listen to it first-hand, like Bob Gates did.

“I absolutely hated going to this political theater,” he says in his new memoir of his years as head of the Defense Department.

The president — and Gates worked for eight different men in a long career –—“tells Congress and the American people that everything in the country is going, or will go, swimmingly with him as president (or at worst, “unprecedented challenges” will be tackled “boldly”) and lays out his agenda for the coming year.”

“Major elements of the address are inevitably partisan,” Gates noted, meaning that Republicans and Democrats vie to be jack-in-the-House cheerleaders depending on which party holds the White House.

By tradition, the military chiefs don’t applaud except for the troops or other such patriotic statements, and Supreme Court justices rarely applaud at all, “never standing except when the president enters or leaves.”

“The president’s cabinet, on the other hand, must rise with virtually every paragraph and every jab intended to outrage the opposition,” Gates fumed. “I disliked doing these political deep knee bends under both Bush and Obama.”

Gates is happily retired, although the new memoir is still steaming many in Washington. But the SOTU theater’s 2014 performance by President Barack Obama, that is less in the way of a mass performance than a soliloquy, or a one-man show, like Hal Holbrook doing Mark Twain.

That is because Obama’s ability to steer major legislation through Congress is limited, particularly in an election year for all members of the House and one-third of senators. So he likely will be appealing less for legislation than talking about his agenda in the executive branch, where he can within limits set his own course and determine government policy without Congress.

In Gates’ book, he remembered that, “A close observer would have seen how often I was the last to rise and first to sit.”

Most of us are likely in that mood in this SOTU. The political calisthenics in the chamber will matter less than whether Obama sets a popular tone for what is a year of acting strategically in the executive branch.