On Tuesday evening, American President Barack Obama came before a joint session of the US Congress, as well as television audiences throughout the country and the world, and delivered his constitutionally mandated State of the Union speech. Rather than broad, sweeping proposals or heroic measures, Obama set out a list of actions he said he would carry out – with or without congressional action – even as he urged broader support for immigration reform and efforts to achieve more economic equity. Still, the speech was clearly in the mould of an election year speech – in addition to being an effort to stake out a presidential legacy agenda. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a closer look.
The annual State of the Union speech is a great republican (small ‘r’) ritual in American public life. The president is escorted into the House of Representatives’ chamber in Congress; the cabinet (minus one, just in case), Supreme Court justices, senior military officers and ambassadors are all in attendance. There are specially invited guests, the media faithfully reports and broadcasts the whole thing and the television networks provide pre-speech analysis, real-time, on-going analysis and then, post-speech analysis. Spin doctors from both parties put the best (or worst face on things), and then, the opposition party gets to give its rebuttal – but they don’t get the same grand set.
Watch: Obama’s 2014 State of the Union speech
For Obama, this time around, his State of the Union speech was a realistic recognition that the president and Congress disagree sufficiently on enough things that it is unreasonable to expect passage for any major presidential initiative that requires congressional support. There is this little matter of a mid-term election in less than ten months. This year, Republicans think they may be able to increase their majority in the House – and even gain control of the Senate. Meanwhile, Barack Obama is hoping to ride the national concern about a sense of growing economic inequality and a lack of upward mobility as a way to hold the line with congressional power and build a presidential legacy, post-2016.
As a result of this clash of ambitions, Barack Obama’s hoped-for year of action could amount to a lot of running in place. In this speech, among other things, Obama called on Congress to increase the national minimum wage, to reform immigration laws, to broaden access to preschool education, to expand international trade. However, these ideas were highlighted in his 2013 State of the Union address as well and – as a result – represent still-unmet goals of his second term. This time, however, Obama set them out as parts of a bigger whole, fitting into an agenda that points to an economy that although it continues to recover following the 2008 financial crisis, has not distributed its benefits to all Americans fairly.
For his part, Obama told his multiple audiences, “Let’s make this a year of action. What I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class.” But rhetoric can only carry things so far. Both his congressional opponents as well as some of his nominal allies may obstruct any pathways forward.
Republicans have the power to thwart any momentum on a legislative decision on immigration. While House GOP leaders say they want to act on immigration legislation this year, conservative lawmakers in their own party are increasing opposition to any progress. Moreover, Republicans may yet push for a showdown over increasing the debt ceiling – again – by insisting on new spending cuts or changes in the president’s signature health care law as the price for agreement on the debt ceiling. So far at least, Obama has promised there will not be any give on such measures.
Meanwhile, Obama’s appeal for an increase in the national minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour could be the kind of thing that ends up being more an election-year marker than an actual legislative accomplishment. Surveys show a majority of Americans support an increase in the wage level. As a result, Senate Democrats will likely schedule votes that draw attention to Republican opposition in a larger election year strategy to paint the GOP as opposed to measures that assist upward mobility.
Obama has also called for an expansion of the earned-income tax credit, a tax provision that increases the take-home pay of working lower-wage families via a tax refund feature. Some Republican legislators have been advocating alternative measures in an effort to capture the economic mobility argument and so this may set up a largely partisan debate as to whether progress would come either from expanding the tax credit or increasing the minimum wage rate.
The president also called for Congress to grant him “fast track” authority (so that the president negotiates international trade deals and then Congress must vote quickly on the entire package in a timely fashion rather than pick it to death via amendments). This would allow him to negotiate trade agreements with Asia-Pacific nations as well as with the European Union.
In this arena, while Republicans have traditionally favoured such agreements, there is opposition from within the president’s party by virtue of its alliances to unions and environmental organisations. These groups have recently issued an open letter calling on Congress to oppose Obama’s request.
Precisely because it is an election year, there will be pressure on Democrats not to go against their traditional supporters. Patrick Griffin, a Democratic lobbyist who dealt with Congress during the Clinton administration explained this, saying, “The tricky piece in this is Senate (Democrats) and whether or not there will be a full alignment of what they think works for them going into 2014 and what works for him. I’m not sure the Senate Democrats could care less whether they make a deal on anything.”
As a result of all of this, the onus is now on Obama to pick out those efforts his administration can carry out without additional legislation or revised laws. As Obama said, “America does not stand still and neither will 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.”
But such executive actions have their limits. They cannot set forth entirely new spending, their writ usually is narrow, and a president’s successor can reverse or nullify such actions. Nevertheless, such executive actions can still have some far-reaching effects. For example, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order, as was Harry Truman’s decision to carry out the thorough desegregation of the entire American military after World War II.
In Obama’s case, he announced he would increase the minimum wage for employees in new federal contracts. Thousands and thousands of people work for federal contractors, although this new decision would only affect low wage employees in new contracts, going forward from the beginning of 2015.
As expected, Obama praised his signature health-care law, despite its bumbled rollout and the fact it remains the core of the Republicans’ case against his presidency. In his speech, Obama personalised the plan’s impact, citing the case of an actual individual who had obtained medical coverage right at the beginning of 2014 because of the law. Then, six days later, she had faced emergency surgery that Obama said, “would’ve meant bankruptcy” were it not for the fact she now had her medical coverage. Then, he told his Republican tormentors that no matter what they think of the law, they now have no choice but to live with it.
This SOTU speech spent relatively little time on foreign affairs as its first mention came up on page nine of a twelve-page speech. Obama flagged the upcoming military withdrawal from Afghanistan, but noted the US might still keep a small force there for continuing counterterrorism operations and the training of Afghan soldiers. And he added Congress must not pass additional sanctions on Iran – just as the US was negotiating the ambitious multilateral agreement with Iran over its nuclear program.
Despite the partisan tone in parts of Obama’s speech, he did find some opportunities for bipartisan harmony. There was the emotional moment towards the end of his speech when gave one of those shout outs for Sgt Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger blinded in one eye, among other injuries, by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan during his 10th deployment to the war zone. Remsburg sat in the visitors’ gallery next to Michelle Obama and dressed in his army uniform, he received a sustained standing ovation when he stood up and gave a thumbs-up sign to the audience and the nation.
Following President Obama’s speech, Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers delivered the official Republican Party’s response. Rodgers got high marks from the media for her warm, even folksy approach. The GOP had cleverly selected a female spokesperson to attempt to offset feelings the Republicans continue to carry out their “war on women”, as well as to rebut continuing fallout from some astonishingly misogynistic remarks by former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.
Commenting on McMorris’ speech, the Washington Post noted she “faulted Obama’s approach to the economy. Though the national unemployment rate fell last month to 6.7% — the lowest level in more than five years — the drop was powered mostly by a growing number of people who stopped looking for work. ‘Last month, more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one,’ McMorris Rodgers said. ‘Too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the president’s policies are making people’s lives harder.’ ”
There was also a Tea Party rebuttal from Senator Mike Lee, and even a third rebuttal by Senator Rand Paul delivered by Internet video-streaming.
Now that the speech is over, the president has hit the road to try to control the news cycle in events to highlight his key themes during a four-state road trip. First up was one of those big-box Costco stores in nearby Lanham, Maryland, calling further attention to his intention to issue an executive order raising the minimum wage for new federal contractors. As part of this event, Obama was to reiterate his call for Congress to pass a raise in the federal minimum wage rate for all workers, by highlighting Costco’s own corporate efforts to pay its workers a living wage.
Thereafter, the president’s schedule was taking him to a steel plant in Fort Mifflin, Pennsylvania, highlighting his just-announced “starter savings account” to help lower income Americans begin saving for retirement by investing in Treasury bonds in small amounts of minimum payments. Obama is to issue the order that creates the program, to be called “myRA.” On Thursday, Obama goes on to Milwaukee to discuss his proposals for better job training opportunities for workers, and then, finally, he heads to Nashville to focus attention on the successes of a local high school to draw a bead on the need for educational improvements.
Commenting on Obama’s speech afterwards, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni said this SOTU speech spoke directly to the notion of upward mobility as a central element of America’s success. As Bruni wrote, “First President Obama recognised Mary Barra, who was in the audience, noting that her childhood wasn’t a gilded one—she wasn’t born into corporate royalty. No, she got there by dint of toil and talent, a factory worker’s daughter rising to become the first female chief executive officer of General Motors. She’s the American dream personified. Then Obama recognised John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, as ‘the son of a barkeep.’ He, too, landed far from where he began. He, too, took the kind of journey that we like to believe is uniquely possible in this country, the fabled land of opportunity. In paying tribute to Barra, Boehner and Barack Obama, the president was paying tribute to social mobility. And then Obama turned toward a third American success story, the one with the grandest, gaudiest climax. He spoke of a man who became president ‘of the greatest nation on earth’ after having been reared by a single mother. It was his own narrative he was distilling. Call it a selfie shout-out.” And of course it was also an effort to use these three examples as the evocation of his plan to focus on the vexed question of upward economic mobility.
After the speech, AP reporters, fanning out across the country, found that “long-term unemployed listeners said they were happy to in a sense be the stars of the speech, but what they didn’t need was more talk. They needed jobs.” On the minimum wage, the AP reported low wage workers said, like Naquasia LeGrand, that “Businesses don’t have to wait on Congress to help their employees have a living wage.” And in terms of the president’s promise to use executive orders if Congress doesn’t act, “Dean Weygandt, a 52-year-old electronics technician from Toledo, Ohio, thought it was about time. ‘I think he’s used executive privilege less than he should have,’ Weygandt said. ‘He’s tried to work with those people,” he said, referring to Republicans in Congress. ‘There are times before he could have used it and didn’t.’ ” On immigration, AP reporters heard people say they felt Obama was still too vague. “Phil Erro, 69, said Obama forgot or flew past farmers like him and the workers they need. ‘He’s completely skirted the immigration issue,’ said Erro, an almond farmer in California’s Central Valley.”
Ultimately, of course, the real test of all of this will be whether or not the president’s stance towards Congress resonates effectively with the national mood, his party’s electoral fortunes come November, and the success of these policies themselves to the extent they can be implemented. DM
Photo: President Barack Obama pauses for applause and looks up towards the first lady’s box in the gallery as he delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 28, 2014. Picture taken January 28, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing
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