State of the Union: Hype and reality

    The Beltway media is brimming with breathless stories about tonight’s State of the Union speech. They basically fall into two categories: (1) What Obama Will Say, and (2) What Obama Should Say. What the stories don’t say is that, by week’s end, few of us will be able to remember anything Obama did say.

    Sorry to pour cold water on the hype, but there’s no escaping the truth: Your basic State of the Union speech is a forgettable policy wish list studded with rote appeals to bipartisanship (never more rote than now), and capped by the rote assertion that the state of our union is strong. Only two recent sentences have resonated through the years – Bill Clinton’s 1996 declaration that “the era of big government is over” (we’ll be debating the veracity of that one forever), and George W. Bush’s 2002 announcement that “Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa” (a sloppy lie that we’ll be disdaining forever). If anyone out there can quote a single Obama SOTU sentence from memory, I would be shocked and awed.

    Which brings us to the impending event, and the reality that trumps the hype. I’ll keep it simple: Obama will talk about how he wants to create jobs and spur a faster economic recovery. This will require new spending on infrastructure, housing, education, research – you know, stimulus stuff. But 234 listeners will be sitting on their hands. I refer, of course, to the House Republicans, who, in all likelihood, will continue to maintain a death grip on the nation’s progress.

    Politically speaking, most of them are safely cocooned. Thanks to gerrymandering, they still constitute a majority of the chamber – even though they lost the aggregate national House tally last November by more than one million votes. They mostly represent safe conservative districts (only 16 represent districts that went for Obama in the presidential voting), so rest assured that they’ll heatedly resist Obama’s call for new revenues to prime the economic pump. They’re entirely focused on forcing new spending cuts, and it doesn’t matter a whit that their economic vision ( I use that word advisedly) was decisively repudiated at the ’12 ballot box. Mainstream public opinion is not their prime concern. They know that if they fail to block Obama’s economic initiatives, they will be primaried back home in 2014 by challengers who are even more absolutist.

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    So what can Obama do to boost the economy, in the absence of House cooperation? Tonight, he’ll probably say something like this: “The most urgent challenge that we face right now is getting our economy to grow faster and to create more jobs….We can’t wait for an increasingly dysfunctional Congress to do its job. Where they won’t act, I will.” That’s what he said on Oct. 24, 2011, when he announced that he would bypass Congress by taking executive action. Fine, as far as it goes. But if you check the list of actions (collectively known as his “We Can’t Wait” initiatives), you quickly realize that he had minimal room to maneuver. Executive actions can create jobs, but only at the margins. To make big economic gains, he’ll need the Republican House.

    Good luck with that. His only hope – a slim one, but theoretically doable – is that he can occasionally peel away those aforementioned 16 Republicans who hail from Obama-friendly districts, and perhaps 20 more Republicans who represent suburban districts where middle-class voters might be receptive to his pitch for greater public investment (when it’s framed as a way to boost middle-class economic security). Combine all those GOPers with the 201 House Democrats, and presto…OK, I said the odds were slim.

    But Obama is not without some political leverage. Buoyed by his re-election, and backed by a minimally divided Democratic party, he faces an opposition at war with itself. For evidence, take a look at the GOP’s plans to rebut tonight’s State of the Union speech. The party address will be delivered by the great Hispanic hope, Sen. Marco Rubio, but the more extreme tea-party faction insists on featuring one of its own alleged stars, Sen. Rand Paul. So the public will hear a mixed message. (When Paul inevitably rails about how Obama wants to perpetuate Big Guvmint, I do hope he highlights his own principled opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act that ended segregation in public accommodations.)

    And that’s not all, folks. The GOP’s sizable nutcase faction is also weighing in tonight. Texas congressman Steve Stockman, who last week warned that if Obama tries to tighten gun laws via executive action, he’ll retaliate by launching impeachment proceedings, announced that his guest at the State of the Union will be…Ted Nugent. Last April, the washed-up rocker declared that if Obama won re-election, “I will be either be dead or in jail by this time next year.” (I suppose we’ll find out in eight weeks.) This is the kind of discourse that animates the nutcase faction and complicates Republican attempts to persuade the nation that the party is mature enough to co-govern.

    Which is why, despite all the obstacles in Obama’s policy path, there is no escaping this truth: The state of Republican disunion is strong.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


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