Fire in the belly: Obama’s 2015 State of the Union speech

Fire in the belly: Obama’s 2015 State of the Union speech

“Fire in the belly” may be an overused term in the world of politics, but Barack Obama seemed to have his set at high for Tuesday’s State of the Union message to the US Congress. Of course a Republican Congress may well douse some of those flames in the weeks and months to come. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a first look at the speech.

If the cynics (and more than a few Republicans) are to be believed, after the November 2014 midterm election, Barack Obama had become last year’s news; he was kaput, finito; there was no there, there. If so, Obama’s State of the Union speech on 20 January was designed to disprove that notion. Watching it, it was clear it was a heartfelt presentation – with his whole being seemingly invested in it – ending with the deliberate recall of the emotional catchphrase of his eloquent keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Party nominating convention – the speech that brought him to the attention of America. As in that earlier speech, on Tuesday evening, he attempted to rally the nation to his side, declaring that there were no blue states or red states (a description of partisan voting), only the United States.

How well he achieves any of his aims may now depend on how well he and his party have caught the national mood on the theme of economic equality to cause Republicans to think twice before dismissing every one of his ideas and proposals out of hand.

The State of the Union (SOTU) speech is a constitutionally mandated responsibility of the president, as called for in Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution, requiring a president to periodically give Congress information on the “state of the union”. For much of the country’s history, the president simply submitted a written report to Congress, including legislative proposals and any measures he believes are “necessary and expedient”.

But, with the advent of radio, and then television, the chief executive’s address has become a broadcast given live across the country on most networks. For much of that period, the speech has become a major fixture of the broadcast calendar – particularly when the country only had three TV broadcast networks and counterpart radio news networks. Then, as cable television has grown in reach and coverage, and now with a growing array of online options, the competition for the public’s attention has grown that much stronger – even as fewer and fewer people tune in for the entire broadcast on their evening television viewing.

Watch: Barack Obama’s SOTU 2015

As a result, presidents and their media strategists have added bells and whistles to the event that include the now-usual shout-outs in the speech tied to a select group of presidential guests seated in the visitors’ gallery above the chamber. Ronald Reagan had first set up this now-standard practice when he positioned the man who had rescued victims from an air crash on the shoreline of the Potomac River from that river’s icy winter waters – as his way of headlining personal initiative and self sacrifice in lieu of waiting for government help. This device is now a standard practice that plays to the television cameras and the photographic moment. This time around, the live “props” scheduled to be on hand include Alan Gross, the USAID contractor released from a Cuban prison last month as part of Obama’s decision to normalize relations with the Cuba; Chelsey Davis, a student who will graduate from a community college in May; and Dr Pranav Shetty, a physician who has been working on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

In recent days, the Obama administration has shifted into overdrive in setting out the key messages that were to be highlighted in the SOTU in a series of events offering nuggets on the outlines of his tax proposals, in addition to a strong push through social media – before, during and after the speech itself. Following the speech, it is now standard for all the networks to segue to a feisty free-for-all bringing together commentators and spin-meisters – as well as opposition party rebuttals of the president’s just-delivered speech. By a wide consensus, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz seems to have bobbled the ball in his chance with the rebuttal.

Unlike the SOTU speeches Obama was able to give in the early years of his presidency when his party held both houses of Congress, or even when the Democrats had lost control of the House of Representatives but still held the Senate, this time around, following the 2014 election, Obama had to assume the persona of Theodore Roosevelt’s “man in the arena”. This time he was facing his political opponents and the country simultaneously, demanding attention and insisting upon the continuing relevance of his ideas and his administration. And helping set the agenda for the 2016 election.

Of course, Obama is confronting a significantly different set of circumstances than might have been the case a year or so ago. On the one hand, virtually all of the country’s economic performance indicators are significantly improved – unemployment is substantially down, the stock market is way up, deficits are down, the broader economic growth indices are all up, job creation is up, business confidence is up, and the petrol price (and all that implies) is way, way down. But, on the other, the global political-economic-security profile could easily be described as rather worse than a year ago – what with the rise of ISIS, the civil war/Russian intervention in Ukraine, the actions of fundamentalist insurgents and desperados in places as far apart as France, Yemen and Nigeria, a rising global terror alert, and the growing fears of a renewed international economic slowdown, beyond the US.

Still, despite the impressive and positive domestic economic news, the country seems increasingly in a bit of a spin over growing evidence and anecdote that the revival of economic growth following the Great Recession of 2008-9 has not reversed income stagnation beyond the improved fortunes of the rich and super-rich. Rather, it may have exacerbated this flat-line instead.

This unease has sufficiently penetrated the national zeitgeist (consider the impact of Thomas Piketty’s doorstopper of a book on economic inequality upon the chattering class in America) that a columnist as world-weary as Richard Cohen in the Washington Post could offer the day before the SOTU, “It’s clear by now that the fruits of automation, computerization and outsourcing are being reaped by the top 1 percent — in this case, shipping companies and not drivers. The old bell curve with the middle class bloating comfy in the middle is being replaced by what’s called the power curve, in which something called the 80/20 rule applies: 20 percent of the participants in an online venture get 80 percent of the rewards. Think Uber. It’s not the drivers who are getting rich. Something new and possibly awful is happening…”

…“Many of the jobs currently being produced are part-time and low-wage, but even when the pay is good, the jobs are often evanescent — gone in a year or so.”

As a result, the president had already telegraphed the bare bones of proposals to make some relatively modest changes in the tax code to prod movement towards after-tax income equality, even as the super-rich will undoubtedly still have their yachts and second, or third, homes in Boca Raton or the ski chalet in Sun Valley. Beyond the SOTU speech, the president’s tax proposals will get fuller exposition in the president’s budget message in a few weeks, and in all the spin that follows.

As the AP’s White House correspondent put it just hours before the SOTU speech was to be delivered, “Obama’s calls for increasing taxes on the wealthy, making community college free for many students and expanding paid leave for workers stand little chance of winning approval from the new Republican majority on Capitol Hill. But the debate over middle-class economics is looking critical for the coming campaign. ‘Inequality and especially the growing opportunity gap have become the top litmus test of seriousness for 2016,’ said Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist who has discussed inequality issues with the president and his advisers. ‘The entry ticket for the presidential sweepstakes is that you have a policy — some policy — for dealing with this issue.’ ”

Given the political standoff between a Republican Congress and a Democratic president (and one with no more personal political campaigns for office left to fight, Obama was careful to point out), this SOTU was destined to spend considerable attention on the interconnections between the improvements in the middle class economy, national security, energy and the environment, cyber-security and trade. And so it did.

This time around, speech was much more a broad essay on Obama’s hopes for his legacy than a tight focus on the cascade of specific legislative proposals that is the more usual stock-in-trade of many previous State of the Union speeches. Obama appealed for a better brand of Washington politics and, as he pledged to work with Republicans, he also pushed for wide-reaching economic proposals and issued a promise to veto any GOP efforts to dismantle Obamacare or his immigration actions initiated by presidential executive orders.

By the time the chief usher called out, “Mr Speaker, the President of the United States”, the House of Representatives chamber was packed with members of both houses of Congress, the cabinet (save for one member staying over at the White House, just in case), Supreme Court justices, and a flurry of invited guests. In the chamber, almost all the female members of Congress had selected bold pinks, shimmering blues or emerald greens, or a bright canary yellow to wear – all almost certainly selected to stand out in the television images beamed across the country and around the world, effectively shouting, “Yup, here I am!”

In his actual speech, Obama declared boldly that the state of the nation was “strong,” as the “shadow of crisis” has finally been left behind and as he urged Congress to build on the actual economic gains by raising taxes on the nation’s wealthiest to pay for corresponding tax reductions for the middle class. However, this ambitious agenda is almost certainly going to antagonise the new Republican majority more than it will win the GOP’s approval in tangible legislative terms.

As Obama said, “We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance or unravelling the new rules on Wall Street or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got a system to fix. And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, I will veto it.”

cruz & co

Photo: Republican Senator from Texas Ted Cruz (3-L) joins other Republicans in attending US President Barack Obama’s 6th State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on the floor of the US House of Representatives, in Washington, DC, USA, 20 January 2015. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

In the foreign policy arena, he asked Congress to set aside the legislative framework that keeps the embargo against Cuba in place. He also reached out to his opposition in promising to work with them to achieve an authorization for military action against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as stronger legislation to guard against cyber-attacks aimed at American citizens and institutions. Then, in something of a change from the more usual run of Democratic Party trade policies, Obama renewed his call for fast-tracking free trade agreements with Asia and Europe (giving the president authority to negotiate broad trade agreements), generating more applause from pro-trade Republicans than more sceptical Democrats.

In the domestic economic portion of his speech, Obama offered a direct challenge to the prevailing GOP economic currency, calling for a modest increase in the capital gains rate on couples earning more than $500,000, up to 28%, as well as new estate taxes on capital gains on securities at the time of an inheritance, and some hefty fees on around a hundred US financial firms with assets over $50 billion. In the Obama proposals, a big share of the estimated $320 billion worth of new taxes and fees would be earmarked for measures to aid the middle class (this writer lost track of the number of times the words “middle class” were in the speech), including a $500 tax credit for families with two spouses working, expansion of the child care tax credit and a $60 billion program to make community college free. As Obama said, “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?” The proposal on community college tuition was designed as part of the up-skilling of a new generation to take up the new-tech jobs that will come available in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.

Not surprisingly, Republicans have already pronounced most of these ideas as virtually dead on arrival. Speaker of the House John Boehner, sitting behind Obama, sometimes looked as if he had just tasted something more than a bit unpleasant – lips pursed, head down, frown on the forehead – every time a new economic or tax proposal passed through the president’s lips.

holly trinity

Photo: US Vice President Joe Biden applauds (L) as US Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) listens to US President Barack Obama deliver the State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on the floor of the US House of Representatives in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, USA, 20 January 2015. EPA/MANDEL NGAN / POOL

In discussing foreign policy issues, while noting the end of active combat experience in Afghanistan and the massive decline in US force commitments in the region, Obama defended the return to limited military action in Iraq (this time against the Islamic State), and he said Congress could “show the world that we are united in this mission” by passing a new resolution formally authorizing the use of force against the Islamic State group. Meanwhile, Obama also promised to veto any efforts in Congress for new sanctions against Iran as the March deadline for framework agreement with Iran over its disputed nuclear program approaches. Any legislative effort in that regard, Obama said, “will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails — alienating America from its allies and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again.”

Ending on a note that aimed to rise above partisanship, Obama reached back to his 2004 keynote speech, with its rhetorical pulse that had argued that America is not composed of blue or red states “but is the United States”. Then as now, he gave a helluva speech, but now the new ground war in Washington’s political hothouse will begin over the contents of Obama’s newest utterances. DM

Photo: US President Barack Obama delivers the State of The Union address before a joint session of Congress on the floor of the US House of Representatives in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, USA, 20 January 2015. EPA/MANDEL NGAN / POOL

For more, read:

  • State of the Union Speech, full video at the White House website;
  • In State of the Union, Obama Focuses on the Middle Class in the New York Times;
  • Obama in State of the Union: The shadow of crisis has passed at the AP;
  • In State of the Union, Obama aims to influence 2016 debate at the AP;
  • State of the Union: Five issues to watch in the Financial Times;
  • Technology disrupting the American Dream, a column by Richard Cohen in the Washington Post;
  • In State of the Union Address, Obama to Move Past Hardship and Reset Goals in the New York Times;
  • Obama’s Social Media Team Tries to Widen Audience for State of the Union Address in the New York Times;
  • 4 GOP hopefuls expected to attend Koch event in;
  • State of the Union 2015: Will there be any surprises? in;
  • Obama will give State of Union address against backdrop of deep partisan divide in the Washington Post.

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