With apologies to Bill Murray and his alarm clock, it’s clear by now that the State of the Union speech is Barack Obama’s turgid version of Groundhog Day.
Once a year in mid-winter, he voices the same plea for congressional Republican cooperation. He touts common-sense ideas that most Americans support, and meanwhile, over his left shoulder, John Boehner channels his obstructionist brethren by sitting implacably stone-faced.
But this year, supposedly, Obama vows that things are gonna be different.
If the House Republicans and filibustering Senate Republicans refuse to cooperate, he’ll just circumvent them: “America does not stand still – and neither do I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.” On a whole range of broadly popular issues, “Congress needs to get on board,” but failing that, “I will act on my own.”
In other words, he heralded 2014 as the year of executive action – thumbing his nose at the GOP’s ongoing audacity of nope, governing instead by a stroke of the pen. Sounds bold, right?
In truth, it’s the opposite. It’s a surrender to the reality that his greatest ambitions will not be realized.
Republicans are duly freaking out about “executive overreach” and an “imperial presidency” (even though Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush issued more executive orders in their respective first terms than Obama did), but, in truth, there’s no way that a president can change the nation with pen strokes. For that, you need bipartisan legislation, but we know that ain’t happening; heck, last year 90 percent of Americans plus Obama supported universal background checks on gun buyers…and Republicans in Congress still managed to kill the idea. Last night, Obama gave the gun issue one wimpy paragraph (“I intend to keep trying, with or without Congress”), the equivalent of a white flag.
Executive orders mostly fiddle around the margins. Future presidents can undo them with their own pen stroke. Most Americans support a higher federally-imposed minimum wage, most Republicans in Congress oppose it (shocking, I know), so Obama’s only alternative is to do something with his pen: “I will issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour.” Sounds bold, I suppose, but his move will favorably affect only a few hundred thousand people. To help the downtrodden millions, he needs Congress. But all he could do was plead and cheerlead: “Join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise.” Yeah, that’ll work.
It was the same deal on the jobless benefits issue. Senate Republicans earlier this month blocked an extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed, and House Republicans have no interest in helping them, either (shocking, I know). But Obama can’t restore those benefits with an executive order. All he could do last night was say pretty please: “This Congress needs to restore unemployment insurance you just let expire for 1.6 million people….Congress, give these hardworking, responsible Americans (a) chance. Give them that chance. Give ’em a chance.” No way he can restore those benefits with a stroke of a pen. Barring help from Congress, he’s “asking” CEOs to give the long-term unemployed “a fair shot.” Yeah, that’ll work.
And it was Groundhog Day on the issue of early education: “Last year, I asked this Congress to help states make high-quality pre-K available to every four-year-old. As a parent as well as a president, I repeat that request tonight.” Obama can’t create a pre-K program with an executive order. All he can do on his own is chair a voluntary meeting: “And as Congress decides what it’s going to do, I’m going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need.” Better than nothing, but not by much.
Path-to-citizenship immigration reform got only one paragraph – a rote plea to the House Republican obstructionists: “It is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, and law enforcement – and fix our broken immigration system. Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted (passing reform last year). I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same.” Pretty weak stuff. But assailing the House GOP wouldn’t do any good, either. Most of those lawmakers are cocooned in safe white districts, and their path to re-election this fall is smoother if they don’t act on Latino aspirations.
But the section of the speech devoted to Obamacare – that was surprisingly strong stuff. You have to wonder whether the vulnerable Democratic incumbents seeking re-election in red states shared the president’s enthusiasm, but give the guy credit for at least defending his signature achievement – and giving ballot Democrats some potential talking points: “Already, because of the Affordable Care Act, more than three million Americans under age 26 have gained coverage under their parents’ plans. More than nine million Americans have signed up for private health insurance or Medicaid coverage. And here’s another number: zero. Because of this law, no American can ever again be dropped or denied coverage for a preexisting condition like asthma, back pain, or cancer.” (Boehner sat there looking pained, because, hey, why should we be helping people with asthma, back pain, or cancer?)
And on the issue of climate change, it was at least refreshing to hear Obama say, “The debate is settled. Climate change is a fact,” a declaration that probably prompted Republicans to grab their phones, call up dictionary.com, and research the definition of fact. But with so many reality-deniers in the ranks, they won’t lift a finger to help Obama in year six. So instead he has “directed” his administration “to work with states, utilities and others” to fight carbon pollution. Again, better than nothing, but not enough.
At least we had Sgt. Cory Remsburg, up there in the gallery, still alive after 10 deployments. He provided a rare moment of union. And it was noteworthy that Obama saw Remsburg’s narrative as a metaphor for America: “(Cory) says, ‘Nothing in life that’s worth anything is easy.’…Our freedom, our democracy has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged…But if we work together, if we summon what is best in us, with our feet planted firmly in today but our eyes cast towards tomorrow, I know (the dream) is within our reach.”
In year six, his presidency may be diminished – his line about feeling “frustrated or discouraged” seemed self-referential – but, rhetorically, at least the guy can still bring it. As Republican strategist Alex Castellanos later remarked, “A speech by Barack Obama is a lot like sex. The worst there ever was is still excellent.”
I did an hour-long gig this morning on WHYY’s “Radio Times” about the State of the Union speech, and our joyful political climate. You can listen here.
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