After the glitz and glamour of President Obama’s second inauguration, Washington finally got down to business last tonight with the State of the Union Address. This was another opportunity for the president to talk at Congress, if not necessarily to Congress. Certainly, he has not proved very adept at talking with Congress so far. The State of the Union is the equivalent of the budget speech in the UK, an occasion of high politics and low manners, at which the president’s supporters cheer, his opponents boo and the pundits ponder. It is, if you will, presidential pantomime.
The State of the Union address has evolved with the nation. Until 1913 it was merely a written report delivered to Congress as required by the Constitution. Later, it was delivered in person, but as late as the 1960s it was delivered in the afternoon with little consideration for the growing TV audience. However, with the rise of the Imperial Presidency came the emergence of the State of the Union as a Prime Time event, scheduled with military precision and designed to be one of the signature events in the Washington, D.C. calendar. It is an all too rare opportunity for the president to address both houses of Congress, the members of the Supreme Court and a TV audience that has reached as high as 52.4 million in 2009.
Of course, give ‘em and inch and they will steal the evening, and some presidents have been known to talk and talk, none more so than Bill Clinton, who in 1995 and 1999 came dangerously close to talking for 90 minutes. That’s the length of a football game, but without the change of ends at half time. Perhaps Clinton’s verbosity can be forgiven in light of his incredible capacity to ad-lib the first 20 minutes of his 1994 State of the Union Address, when the incorrect speech was loaded into his TelePrompter. Slick? Absolutely. Thank goodness he never went into the car business. For this, after all, is a presidential sales pitch; an opportunity for the president to demonstrate his mastery of Washington and to talk directly to the American people, literally over the heads of Congress and to ask for support on issues that half of the chamber would resist tooth and nail.
This year was no different. Forget any misperceptions about a new term and a new start in which Republicans and Democrats put aside their differences for national unity. The State of the Union, despite the theatrics, is about cold, hard politics and the stakes are higher than ever with the president determined to push ahead with his priorities; climate change, nuclear weapons reduction, gun control, tax reform, immigration reform and the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. All were touched on, dwelt on or in some cases lingered over last night, as the president sought to press the right buttons within the chamber, with viewers at home and with the all important ‘randomly selected group of voters’ who were being polled for instant feedback and which will do much to drive the direction of policy in the months ahead.
Obama opened by announcing, “The state of our union is stronger.” But stronger than what precisely? Mexico? Greece? A house of cards? Bill Clinton used to intone, “The State of our Union is strong.” Such a declaration would be welcome in 2013, but would appear to be merely a useful fiction. Obama’s address covered a wide range of issues; a smorgasbord of delights for his supporters, and a sack of ashes for his opponents. There was little here that was unexpected, little here that was conciliatory and little here that will alter perceptions or feelings on either side of the political aisle. As expected there were no niceties from the president, or anything except superficial pleasantries from his opponents in the chamber. Neither side are in the mood for compromise. Both have recently been re-elected, with new mandates to continue doing what they have been doing for the past 4 years.
Medicare reform was proposed, coupled with a plea to “save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and well-connected.” Tax reform was not going to be a topic that kept viewers glued to their seats, but it was what was being proposed, along with job creation proposals to stimulate the economy. This was, in many ways, a speech that could have been given a year ago as America prepared for an election campaign, and was, therefore, an indication of how little has been achieved in the last twelve months.
Immigration reform was addressed as the president laid claim to having put “more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history,” and having reduced “illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.” One wonders how the government claims to be able to record the rate of illegal crossings whilst being unable to prevent them? Obama proposed a concept of Earned Citizenship, “a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.” The big question, however, must surely be: How long before drones are patrolling the boarders to prevent such incursions? Perhaps that will be addressed next year.
It had already leaked that 34,000 American personnel would be withdrawn from Afghanistan this year and that the combat mission would be complete in 2014, but the president reiterated the fact nonetheless. Good news, it seems, will be taken wherever it can be found. For that matter, enforced measures are always better if they can be presented as a generous offer, hence the president’s revelation that the White House would “engage with Congress to ensure…that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws.” Such a declaration was the result of revelations that have emerged from the Senate Confirmation hearings that have been continuing on Capitol Hill and which look set to rumble on, with questions remaining in relation to kill or capture policies.
The time allocated to foreign as opposed to domestic affairs was telling. Traditionally, presidents have spent their first terms addressing domestic issues and their second on international relations, seeking to win Nobel Prizes. President Obama, of course, has done both already, having passed health care reform in his first 2 years and won the Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office. Accordingly, this does all rather risk becoming The Curious Case of Barack Obama; the man who lived his presidency in reverse and so what Obama does for his second act will be telling. He cannot run for re-election, so he could be courageous and take on vested interests and lobby groups that have previously been untouchable. Last night he addressed the issue of gun violence that has received so much media coverage of late. However, he didn’t campaign on this issue and has said previously that he has no intention of removing guns from gun owners. This has not prevented gun shops from doing a roaring trade from customers who fear the end is neigh for their right to bear arms. This was, however, the emotional highpoint of the speech, as the president insisted that victims of gun violence “deserve a vote” and urged Congress to declare where they stood on the issue that has killed over a thousand Americans since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Long before that vote is even contemplated, however, it appears that the chance of reform in this area is dissipating fast.
For whilst Obama is beyond the reproach of voters, his party is not, so again, discount any notion of a president free to do as he wishes for the next four years. He will come under intense pressure from those who are seeking to replace him in 2016 not to stray from the mainstream for fear of driving voters from the Democratic Party and into the hands of the Republicans on a whole range of contentious issues that could decide the next two election cycles. For make no mistake, the American system of government is geared up for campaigning, not governing. In less than two years the entire House of Representatives and a third of the Senate will have been re-elected, and once that is out of the way, all eyes will turn to the presidential election of 2016 and any residual political clout that Obama retains at that point will rapidly disappear.
With so much at stake it is little wonder that the president’s opponents are ill-prepared to allow him the entire spotlight and now they get the chance to respond in a rather down at heel address shortly after the president speaks, in a process that actually serves to demonstrate the gulf that exists between the President of the United States and any other mere mortal. This year’s lucky contestant was Marco Rubio, the Republican Senator from Florida, by way of Havana. Senator Rubio is the Republican Party’s Great Hispanic Hope in 2016, so it was no surprise that he was selected to respond to the president, in what is in all probability the opening salvo of the 2016 election. In his response, Senator Rubio urged the president to abandon his ‘obsession’ with higher taxes, but his moment in the national spotlight was sullied by his decision to take a breather and provide Poland Spring bottled water a much needed product placement. Such are the little things that memories of such events are made of.
Dr. James D. Boys is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College, London. He maintains a website at www.jamesdboys.com and can be followed on Twitter @jamesdboys