The State of Obama’s Union: Not Great, and Getting Worse

If you are visiting (or hopefully following) this website, you will know that I have fond memories of the Clinton years, and am preparing to complete my first book on his adminstration. (Clinton’s Grand Strategy, available later in the year from Bloomsbury)

Back then, President Clinton routinely opened his annual address to Congress by intoning that ‘the State of our Union is Strong.’ Not a bad way to begin, both structurally and rhetorically. It set the tone and demonstrated mastery of the moment.  (Even when the wrong speech was fed into his Teleprompter). In other words, Clinton did everything that was missing from the 2014 State of the Union address.

President Obama’s speech was fascinating for many reasons. It was, perhaps, his best (some would say final) opportunity to breathe new life into an administration that appears to be rapidly running out of road and to put the disaster that was 2013 behind him. With the world watching and the nation gathered around television screens, computer terminals and perhaps even the odd tablet, the stage was set for Obama’s big moment. So much so that talk emerged of State of the Union fatigue! This, however, was Obama’s big night for his big reveal; what would he do with the remainder of his presidency? What initiatives would be unveiled that would doubtless prove instrumental in any legacy?

The answer, apparently, was not very much. When even Gary Younge is forced to concede thatObama’s union is in a state, it’s time to start packing…

Obama promised a year of action for 2014 but this appeared to be lacking in his speech. Instead of sweeping ideas and potential legislative initiates, the speech was full of small postures and restated positions. It is remarkable that a year into his second term the president had so little new to offer and raises the question as to why he ran for re-election if he has no tangible agenda to initiate over the next three years. He has served but a quarter of his second term, and yet specific policy initiatives were thin on the ground.

Instead of moving forward, Obama backtracked, and called out his opponents over their opposition to his healthcare plans. The White House is desperate to get on the front foot on this issue and move beyond the technical issues that have haunted the administration since its roll out. Such efforts will probably succeed as the technical glitches get sorted, but the initiative has taken a pounding as a result.

50 years on from Lyndon Johnson’s ambitious War on Poverty, the president who initially appeared to offer so much to elements of American society that had previously gone un-noticed, did little to breathe life into the corpse that is the Great Society. Much has been made of Obama’s pledge to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors from $7.25 to $10.10, but this will have a limited impact since many federal workers already earn more than this. Neither will it be applied retrospectively and so will only have a limited impact at some point in the future. Republicans, naturally, have concerns that it could drive businesses to the wall.

Both sides are playing to their base in an election year. However, in the United States, every other year is an election year and every other year the country is anticipating an election. This, therefore, is a government far better suited for campaigning than for actual governing.

That being the case the president made a play for the female vote (traditionally Democrat) by highlighting the gender gap in pay and conditions and calling this an embarrassment. It should be highlighted, of course, that he has been president since January 2009, and so part of that embarrassment must be shouldered by his administration. This, remarkably enough, was not conceded.

Continuing in the election year mode, issues of immigration reform have become lost in the weeds and the president’s blustering efforts to address this issue are unlikely to help. A bi-partisan group was making interesting headway on this issue last year, until Obama stumbled in and insisted on stamping his own views on the process, which appears to have damned the initiative to failure.

There was little sign last night of a contrite chief executive, seeking the bi-partisan approach to policy that is necessary for success on Capitol Hill. Instead, Obama’s perceived presidential pomposity was exacerbated by his announcement of a willingness to act by Executive Authority in defiance of Congress, a stance that will do nothing to assist bi-partisanship for the remained of this time in office. It’s almost as though he wishes to fail in his legislative relations! For a former Constitutional lecturer, he appears to have a rather nuanced interpretation of the role of the president as defined by the Founders, who actively sought to avoid a leader capable of ruling by decree.

Three years from now the next President of the United States will be in office and Obama will presumably be home in Illinois. When he kicks back and watches the new president’s first address to Congress, he will be forced to concede (privately, of course) that his 2014 attempt to rescue his presidency failed to do so. With his opinion polls lower than many members of Congress, he remains a liability for Democrats heading into the midterms, an event that will effectively end the Obama presidency and fire the starting pistol for the 2016 presidential election to find his successor.  They, presumably, will have rather more initiatives to promote than the incumbent and greater personal and political skills with which to try and implement them. One can but hope.

A Word of Thanks…

Late last week I received word that my article on Obama’s State of the Union had been selected for inclusion on the Freshly Pressed section of WordPress. I was naturally flattered that my work had been noted but was totally unprepared for the very positive reaction it received in the process.

My web site appears to have been inundated in the last 48 hours and I am most grateful to those of you who have visited, read my work and chosen to sign up for updates. I hope that my observations and commentaries continue to draw you back to the site and that you will take some time to look over the various sections of the platform to gain an understanding of my work to date.

The broadcast page is hyper-linked up to provide feedback of my work with the world’s leading outlets and a selection of my publications can also be accessed, along with a complete archive of this site, as well as my various podcasts. Enjoy and feel free to drop me a line or follow me on Twitter.

The State of Obama’s Union

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.

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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

JDB on ITalkFM tonight

January is becoming a busy month! After several appearances on Sky News and the BBC, I’m returning to the airwaves this evening with the irrepressible Richie Allen on ITalkFM.

We’ll be discussing the State of the Union address from last night, which could, don’t forget, be Obama’s last…… No, I don’t think it will either, but you never know!

ITalk FM can be accessed on-line and I encourage you to listen live if you can: http://www.italkfm.com/

 

The State of the Union Address

With the presidential election looming on the horizon (well, ok, technically it’s at the end of NEXT year, but you understand), tonight’s State of the Union address is a vital occasion for President Obama. In recent weeks his polls have improved and it seems he has ‘benefited’ from the shooting in Arizona. Just as in 1995, the crazies may end up saving a liberal Democrat president by making him appear to be the voice of moderation in a world gone insane. Political violence is the great spectre that risks over-shadowing the forthcoming election cycle. It remains the great taboo in American politics, but that is a matter that will have to await another occasion…

Tonight will be Obama’s chance to showcase his credentials in primetime, to an audience of millions, at home and around the world. Forget what you may think, this is quickly becoming a global presidency, with the eyes of the world focused on the Capitol Building tonight. This is not simply a speech for the chamber. Tonight really marks the start of the race for the White House in 2012. A poor speech will knock the president off track, force him onto the defensive and give impetuous to the Republicans. A strong speech will remind Americans as to why they voted for Obama, of what he stands for, what he is against and what he has done so far. If Obama has demonstrated a weakness so far, it is in providing a narrative of his time in office. This needs to change, big time and tonight needs to be all about that change. Not ‘change we can believe in,’ but change that is tangible.

Two years ago, Obama basked in the glory of election and seeming universal adulation. Tonight he stands before the American people and those of us overseas who recognise the importance of the speech, as an older, hopefully wiser chief executive. I say hopefully because so far there is not necessarily the evidence that the Obama team have learned the lessons that Clinton did in the mid 90s, but time will tell. Obama has one big advantage going into the election season: No credible challenger from within his own party or even the Republicans. The Speaker of the House, John Boehner, has a singular claim to fame: An apparent inability not to burst into tears at any given moment: Hardly Commander-in-Chief material. His propensity for handkerchiefs is exacerbated by the prowling lipstick–wearing Pit-Bull/Grizzly Mama Bear better known as Sarah Palin, whose shameless self-promotion and inability to take one foot out of her mouth without replacing it with the other, makes her a rather inauspicious, though highly compelling candidate: In the same way that people watch NASCAR for the impact collisions. Of vital importance is the lack of a challenger for the Democratic Party’s nomination. I say vital because of a singular, salient fact: Incumbents who do not face a battle for their party’s nomination secure re-election. Period. Those who have to fight a rearguard action lose. End of story.

Obama’s mission tonight is to emerge head and shoulders above his Republican opponents. In the past they have actually helped him in this exercise by proving equal to their lowly billing. Tonight Obama needs to set out a path to re-election that ignores the results of the 2010 midterms and focuses on the big-picture; jobs, security, prosperity and legacy issues. He needs to think about what he wants Americans to be doing in January 2013. He needs to paint a picture of that and in so doing, make it happen, just as the Gipper and Clinton proved so capable of doing.

America’s greatest presidents have been those that have given voice to America’s greatest hopes for tomorrow and found a way to communicate that vision in an articulate and accessible manner. Tonight is Obama’s opportunity to continue to wide the wave he mounted in his reaction to the Tucson shooting (expect a massive play on this).

Can he do so? Can he deliver? Can he read from his teleprompters? Time will tell…