WASHINGTON — It seems that every State of the Union address must now come with a slogan. In 2011, it was “Win the Future.” In 2012, the slogan was “Built to Last.” For 2013, it was “Let’s Get It Done,” and this year the president will treat us to a “Year of Action.” He and his staff have been test-driving the phrase for months. The president used it again in his Saturday radio address. Though Congress may block him, the president says he’s determined to use every tool at his disposal to get something done. “Where Congress isn’t acting, I’ll act on my own to put opportunity within reach for anyone who’s willing to work for it,” the president said last week.
Sounds exciting, plus the slogan “A Year of Grinding Torpor” or “More of the Same” don’t really fit the spirit of the enterprise. But on the eve of the annual speech, a New Yorker profile of the president doesn’t paint the picture of a man of action — at least not the way that word is being used in the White House’s slogan. Instead of coming across as a man engaging his considerable faculties in an energetic effort to overcome the limits of his office, the president seems content with tending the store, confident that the verdict of history will smile on him. He’s not worried about being measured against the vestiges of an old notion of the presidency. This may be a realistic view of things, but it doesn’t really match the call for action.
The president gave New Yorker editor and Obama biographer David Remnick special access over several days late last year to talk about his administration and his plans for the future. It was similar to the wide-ranging set of interviews the president gave Michael Lewis a year ago for a Vanity Fair profile. In the Lewis interview, the president was buoyant, game for Lewis’ conceit to train a person for the presidency in 30 minutes. He invited the writer to play basketball with him and needled him for his sloppy defense. Remnick’s piece starts out with the president nursing a fat lip from a recent game. In the Lewis piece, Obama talked about the limitations of his office but also talked about its potential, as if he was still sifting through the tool chest for some Allen wrench that might yield a fresh result.