Presidents have stood before Congress to opine annually on the state of our union since the era of Woodrow Wilson. So if you’re bored silly by the rote pomp and disposable rhetoric, you have him to thank. And tonight Barack Obama will sustain those tired traditions, when he unveils an agenda that will be DOA in Congress within milliseconds of his closing words.
It’s no surprise that 65 percent of Americans didn’t bother to watch his ’13 State of the Union address, and that a similar majority will skip tonight’s ephemera. The midterm election season has already begun, which means that Washington won’t do squat this year. Obama’s new buzz phrase is “Year of Action,” but it would be more accurate to title his speech “Year of Excruciation.”
Republicans are loathe to cooperate on virtually anything (nothing new there), lest they hand Obama a win that could boost Democratic congressional prospects in November. Worse yet, they’re loathe to cooperate with each other. They can’t even agree on who should rebut Obama’s speech, so they’ll have three rebuttals – an official address (congresswoman Cathy McMorris-Rogers), a tea-party address (Sen. Mike Lee), and a Rand Paul address (designed solely to buttress the brand of America’s Ophthalmologist). It’s enough to make you miss Marco Rubio’s 2013 product placement ad for bottled water.
Meanwhile, a lot of incumbent Democrats are loathe to be linked to Obama, because they’re running for re-election in red states where he’s broadly unpopular. If he were to expound at length about the virtues of Obamacare, or the need for gun sale restrictions, vulnerable senators like Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas would sit on their hands if only to stop themselves from diving beneath their seats. (Which is why Obama won’t linger on either topic.)
All told, it would be refreshing if Obama were to simply declare that the state of our disunion is strong, and that public confidence in our leaders is weak. At this point, 37 percent of Americans have “good” or “great” faith in Obama’s leadership – this, according to the new Washington Post-ABC News poll – yet that’s stellar when compared to the public’s confidence in the congressional GOP. Only 19 percent have faith in the Republicans. Apparently their year-long rebranding effort – the bright idea of expanding beyond their aging white base – hasn’t borne fruit.
So Obama, mindful of his serial ’13 defeats (no gun restrictions, no immigration reform, no tax reform, no entitlement reform, on and on), will probably play a lot of small ball – with an eye toward framing some issues that might benefit Democrats on the ’14 ballot.
He’ll vow to govern via executive action, doing stuff with the stroke of a pen (like raising the minimum wage for new federal contract workers), if Congress refuses to cooperate. Which is fine as far as it goes; the problem is, a future Republican president could nix that stuff with the stroke of a new pen. And if Obama talks about executive action, it won’t be new anyway. Back in October 2011, he said: “We can’t wait for an increasingly dysfunctional Congress to do its job. Where they won’t act, I will.” So act already.
Obama has talked a lot lately about economic fairness, most notably the ever-wider income chasm that separates the rich from everyone else. This chasm has been four decades in the making, and anyone who thinks that Obama and Congress will join forces to turn the tide is probably hallucinating about unicorns. But income inequality is a populist topic that animates the liberal Democratic base, and midterm Democratic candidates will need a robust base turnout. Hence Obama’s intention to talk it up – tonight and beyond. But it’s just talk, grist for the campaign trail.
So if he can’t budge Congress, he’ll use it as a political foil. The minimum wage issue fills the bill (Republicans predictably refuse to raise it). Ditto the jobless benefits issue. Last month, millions of long-term unemployed saw their federal benefits lapse, thanks to a Senate Republican filibuster and the usual House Republican hostility. A majority of Americans support an extension, so Obama would be on firm political ground if he stumps for those benefits tonight. Plus, the jobless rates in North Carolina and Arkansas – where Democratic senators Kay Hagan and Mark Pryor are running for re-election – are 7.4 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively. The aim is to position those Democrats as the friend of the idled little guy, and Republicans as the foe. (On the other hand, if midterm voters blame Obama for those jobless rates, championing a benefits extension won’t do the Democrats much good.)
“Year of Action” indeed. That slogan seems destined to join his other recent State of the Union themes – including “win the Future” and “Built to Last” – in history’s dustbin. Heck, virtualy all SOTU themes have been disposable, which is why Charlie Cook, the nonpartisan Washington analyst, says: “On my deathbed, (watching the SOTU speech) will be on the long list of hours that I will wish I could retrieve and spend doing almost anything else.”
Most likely, Obama’s new SOTU will be as ephemeral as all the others dating back 100 years (like George W. Bush “switch grass” pledge in 2006: “We’ll also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of reducing ethanol, not just from corn but wood chips and stalks, or switch grass”). Indeed, as evidenced by Obama’s lengthy interview last week in The New Yorker, he’s hip to the limits of the ritual. In his words, “At the end of the day, we (presidents) are part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”
If only the speech could be that short.
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