President Barack Obama’s sixth State of the Union address turned out to be pretty much as previewed in a series of strategic spoilers doled out over the past few days: an interesting but doomed populist manifesto of tax cuts for the middle class, tax increases for those who collect much of their income from investments, paid sick leave and community college for all.
He was playing jazz, going off prompter, riffing, flashing a smile at the idea that, at the very least, Republicans will have to defend the reality that Warren Buffet pays taxes at a lower rate than his secretary.
One place the president didn’t venture was into the darkness that has haunted the country for the last year: How to resolve the conflict between often largely white police forces and the urban population they sometimes fail to protect, with deadly consequences.
No topic got shorter shrift. We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson, Missouri, and New York, Obama said, but “surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed.” Did he mean shot? By the police?
“Surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift,” he added. Of course, we can. Yet this equivalence is something of an evasion. And that was the end of it. Shouldn’t we expect more from Obama?
A study by Daniel Gillion, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, found that Obama talked about race less in his first two years of office than any Democratic president since John F. Kennedy. Tuesday night was no departure.
His remarks were consistent with his comments about the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, which boil down to: Don’t give in to anger and violence; nothing is accomplished by striking out, and understand that progress has been made, which should give us hope that we can make even more progress.
Obama’s demurral was all the more striking as it coincided with the debut this week of the late-night talk show hosted by the black comedian Larry Wilmore. His “Nightly Show” has taken over the coveted 11:30 p.m. time slot – immediately after Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” – that was vacated by Stephen Colbert, who replaced David Letterman at CBS.
Wilmore may do more to help us understand black America than Obama will ever do. What we know from his first broadcast on Martin Luther King Day (“I have a job,” the comedian intoned in a preacher’s voice) is that Wilmore will go where Obama fears to tread. As the quietly hilarious “senior black correspondent” on “The Daily Show,” he had a light, penetrating touch.
He opened with what could have been a preview of Obama’s speech the following night. Wilmore said he wished he had the show a year ago: “All the good bad race stuff happened already. Seriously, there’s nothing left. We’re done.”
Just kidding. From there, it was a marathon of jokes that highlighted uncomfortable truths. He gets why Obama doesn’t dwell on race, but doesn’t give him a pass.
In looking for the “perfect stereotype to bring down the president,” he said Republicans harp on “how much he likes basketball,” and call his 50th birthday party a “hip-hop barbecue.” Wilmore asked his guest, Sen. Cory Booker, the former mayor of Newark, if he still scares people.
“You look good in a suit, but are you a hoodie away from being face-down on the street?”
A few minutes into the show, Wilmore joked that the Oscar nominations were “so white, a grand jury has decided not to indict them” and yearned for someone who could help “Selma” get some respect. Up popped a clip of Al Sharpton doing just that.
“Sharpton? Again? I mean no one else can represent?” Wilmore said. “Slow down, man. You don’t have to respond to every black emergency. You’re not black Batman.”
On Sharpton’s new much-slighter girth, “you’re literally stretching yourself thin,” Wilmore said. “Al, you need to eat food, not just airtime.”
Sure, Obama can’t go there, but he could do better. Being the first black president is a terrible thing to waste, particularly when we still struggle with the reality that some citizens sometimes need protection from the protectors. The closest Obama ever came to taking this on was his touching observation that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon, the Florida teenager slain in 2012 by the neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, who was acquitted.
Obama finally has a cushion to speak truth to power: His disapproval rating is below 50 percent for the first time in two years; 45 percent of Americans say they’re satisfied with the economy, the highest number in 11 years, and his job-approval number is 46 percent, the highest since the 2013 government shutdown. Medical costs are growing at the slowest rate in 50 years, retirement benefits are up, thanks to the booming stock market; gas prices are way down.
The president deserved to take a bow Tuesday night. But he should have used the opportunity to remind us that blacks still get killed by white policemen, who aren’t indicted for it. Instead, he served up his message of economic populism: A rising tide lifts all boats, white and black.
After Obama hugged the hall and Sen. Joni Ernst, the newly elected veteran, mom and bacon enthusiast from Iowa, delivered the Republican response, it was time for Wilmore again. He devoted his second show to Bill Cosby and the tsunami of accusations of sexual assault, a subject almost as fraught with anguish as watching Eric Garner gasping “I can’t breathe.”
Wilmore dispensed with the court of law in favor of “the court of common sense.”
“I’m sorry, he’s guilty,” he said. “We don’t have to turn off our brains.” He invited Cosby to come on his show.
Imagine Obama going there. There’s always his next State of the Union. But don’t hold your breath.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist