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9 December 2016 00:03 (South Africa)
World

Obama's final State Of The Union speech over, the 2016 fight resumes

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World
Photo: People listen as U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at University of Nebraska Omaha arena, in Omaha, Nebraska, January 13, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

President Barack Obama delivered a rhetorically soaring State Of The Union speech, his final, on Tuesday, but the real action is now on the race for his successor. J. BROOKS SPECTOR sets the scene.

Now that US President Barack Obama’s final State Of The Union (SOTU) speech has been delivered, Americans paying attention to the country’s political future have decisively turned their gaze to the 2016 presidential nomination race. Viewership numbers reveal fewer than one in ten Americans watched the speech on Tuesday.

Watch: Obama's 2016 State of the Union Address | The New York Times

Looking ahead, the first primaries and caucuses are a few weeks away (a caucus vote in Iowa first, then followed by primaries in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina). On 1 March the results will be in from the 15-state Super Tuesday, the so-called “SEC primary”. It has been so labelled because so many of those primaries – along with a few caucuses mixed in as well – will take place in states where the major public university sports teams are all part of the fabled Southeast Conference. Then there is a further bunch of additional primaries thereafter in March as well, on 5, 6, 8, 12 and 15 March. And so, it is just possible that by the “ides of March”, in both the Republican and Democratic races, clear frontrunners will have become obvious. Or not. Let’s explore all this a bit further.

As prelude and scene-setter for this primary season, in his final SOTU speech, Obama adopted a less traditional approach of not laying out an extensive agenda of legislative proposals for the coming year. Generally speaking, due to Republican majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the chances of legislative victories this year for the outgoing Obama administration (save on yet another possible future grand compromise over a national budget, but adjudicated by GOP congressional leadership) are about the same as a repeal of the law of gravity.

As a result, Obama and his aides, advisors and speechwriters took the tack of using his final SOTU for a rhetorical summing up of the journey so far - and a sense of the broader national challenges left undone. Stylistically, it had a real sense of a reach back to the speech back in 2004; at the Democratic convention that year that propelled Obama into the national spotlight.

In this recent effort, Obama spent time discussing the challenge of an educational system insufficiently positioned to train, retrain and re-skill a national work force for the economy of the future; the opportunity to focus the nation’s scientific resources on a broad cure for cancer, and the need to reengineer the national political system away from near-constant point-scoring and the deadlock of a gerrymandered Congress. At times it seemed Obama was attempting to deliver a kind of political equivalent of Martin Luther King’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop” oration.

Still, this tone didn’t completely stop Obama from assailing the acid public oratory of many (although unnamed) Republican presidential nomination candidates who insist the nation’s economy is on a one-way road to perdition, or that the country’s international position has become one of imminent disaster. For the first, he reminded his audience that the country has actually been generating a substantial number of new jobs, that unemployment had dropped to 5%, and that the economy has now been growing for years – albeit not as fast as people want, that household income has yet to recover fully from the levels prior to the 2008-9 crisis, and that national income inequality is growing (something that was a conscious tip of the hat to Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders’ pet issue so far).

On the foreign affairs front, Obama took issue with all those anonymous Darth Vader sound-alikes who have been insisting the country is about to be overwhelmed by the forces of militant, extremist Islamic fundamentalism - and that the Obama administration has been all about national weakness and vacillation, at best. The Obama rejoinder to such charges was that the country remains the strongest on earth, that ISIS is a nasty problem, but not an existential threat to the nation (as opposed to parts of the Middle East, of course), and that a steady, deliberate effort to grind ISIS to dust will eventually pay the right rewards – with patience – as opposed to those wild-eyed threats to carpet bomb the region, something that is simply recruitment fodder for groups like ISIS.

Sadly, for Obama, many parts of his depiction of a national agenda for the future is already being overtaken by the more partisan political events of this year’s calendar. There are still a significant number of intra-party candidates debates scheduled – with one on 14 January in South Carolina, (it will be over by the time you'll read this article) as well as subsequent ones in Iowa and New Hampshire and other states, just prior to the states’ respective primaries and caucuses. Similarly, among the Democrats, there are three more debates still on the roster before the big pileup of primaries wraps up.

This year’s front-loaded primary schedule was designed – at least on the Republican side – to help the party move quickly towards a decisive pick for their agreed-upon candidate by mid-March, to better tackle the candidate on the Democratic side that had seemed almost inevitably to become ex-senator, ex-secretary of state, ex-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. The dynamic among the Democrats, meanwhile, had been expected to become an early rally around Clinton so as to avoid infighting and ratchet up the party nice and smartly for the real election. But in both camps, these initial expectations are – apparently – being upended into more suspenseful, and more costly battles of attrition.

The conventional wisdom among the Republican establishment had been that former Florida governor Jeb Bush (brother to and son of former presidents) would slowly, but surely bring together the party in a campaign that spelled out consensus and had oodles of money to campaign with, going into November’s general election. That did not take into consideration, however, that a slew of other politicians (and several non-politicians) hadn’t gotten that particular telegram. As a result, in the initial debates on the Republican side, in addition to usual senators and ex-senators and governors, an entire platoon of hopefuls stepped forward – including billionaire casino owner and builder gadfly Donald Trump, neurosurgeon and religious right stalwart Ben Carson, and former Hewlett Packard CEO, Carly Fiorina.

As this preliminary phase of the campaign has continued, a number of GOP hopefuls have already dropped out of the hunt, or, on the televised debates, been dropped by organisers to the undercard pre-event. Most recently, Rand Paul and Carly Fiorina have just had happen to them for Thursday’s night’s debate; Paul has decided to skip the debate altogether. Thus the competition is beginning to narrow down to Trump, Senators Marco Rubio from Florida and Ted Cruz from Texas, and potentially Ohio Governor John Kasich, and just possibly, still, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. Given the unlikely, but continuing buoyancy of “The Donald” in the early polls, according to some media reports, the Republican “establishment” is already quietly beginning to contemplate what might have to occur if none of the current candidates can actually achieve a majority of the delegates picked from the caucuses and primaries. At the nominating convention, after several successive ballots, that would create a nominating convention that would take on the looks of a hung jury, but broadcast live on national television.

In most cases, delegates are not bound to vote forever for the candidate they were selected to support after the first ballot, and, at that point, the horse-trading would begin in earnest. That might be great for television ratings of the convention, but it might not be quite so good for party unity - or any sense the party’s eventual candidate represented the feelings of the electorate that had picked those delegates. Wilder speculations already murmur about the possibility of a split in the party as a result.

Meanwhile, as the competition has tightened, the biting and scratching between the various Republican candidates has become increasingly intense. Trump has taken to calling his opponents “low energy” or lazy for example. And Senator Cruz has become increasingly pointed in the way he has been responding to his fellow senator, Marco Rubio, over immigration reform.

People with an itch to burn a candidate or two, or perhaps increasingly perspicacious journalists have already turned up some awkward facts about Cruz who just happened to forget to report campaign funding for his senate run that derived from loans from gargantuan investment house, Goldman Sachs, where his wife was working at the time. Big ouch, that one. There will assuredly be much more of that kind of thing as the months move on in 2016, and as more and more embarrassing ties to big business, big banks and big interest groups rise to the surface, given all these people’s pasts to investigate.

On the Democratic side, early on, the smart betting (and a flood of contributions to super-PAC vehicles ostensibly not tied to a candidate as well a big haul of contributions to her official campaign) had been that Hillary Clinton would cross the finish line after her disappointment in 2008, and crack that glass ceiling on women in high office. Several others – putatively marginal candidates – such as former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, former Rhode Island Governor and Senator Lincoln Chafee and Vermont Senator (and independent socialist aligned to the Democrats) Bernie Sanders would challenge her, but that smart money was they would be fodder for Clinton to sharpen her campaign skills with, so that she was primed and ready for the main event, come November.

But not unlike Donald Trump’s unlikely magic spell over a share of the electorate, Sanders, too, caught fire with more liberal elements of the Democratic Party who saw his candidacy as a way to press much harder on redressing inequality in income and shares of the economy’s growth, rather than the more mainstream conventions of the Clinton camp. Sanders thus emerged as an increasingly forceful, but unlikely candidate to ignite passion among voters, but emerge he has.

He is a transplanted “Brooklynite” with distinctly leftist political attitudes, whose political career had taken place unremarkably via small town, small state politics in Vermont. He had been a congressional and senatorial backbencher, and who now, at age 74, would be the oldest president ever elected (at 75) should he actually win. Nevertheless, Sanders has extraordinarily effectively capitalised on a growing wave of dissatisfaction with the national economy as it runs now and, more specifically, of a distrust of all those mega-banks as the prime cause of the misfortunes afflicting the nation. If polling data is accurate among Democratic-leaning Americans, Hillary Clinton now has much more of a fight on her hands than anyone had expected just six months ago.

In the case of both parties, the dynamics of those first few caucuses and primaries have usually been assumed to be the venues where a front-runner eventually emerges from all the pushing and shoving. But in this year’s contest among the Republicans, especially, if the delegate counts end up divvied up over four or five candidates in those early contests, or where the first place finishers are different in each one of those early contests, the Super Tuesday SEC primary would take on an outsized importance, even though none of the big population (and thus big delegate count) states like Illinois, California, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania or Ohio vote until 15 March, when Ohio and Florida citizens finally get to make their choices. Texas does, however, weigh in on that 1 March Super Tuesday primary day.

The Democratic situation is slightly different. The landscape seems to be favouring Sanders in New Hampshire as he comes from neighbouring Vermont, and he may well have closed an earlier gap with Clinton in Iowa as well. At this point, at least, she is still assumed to be a favourite in both Nevada and South Carolina. However, losses in those first two states, even though she gained a share of the delegates, could turn out to be her electoral Achilles heel, at least until a well-oiled campaign machine and a big bank balance is – putatively – brought to bear on the delegate hunt in March.

As a result, at least at this point, the electoral battles to become the two eventual nominees have taken some surprising turns for both parties, and those who were tipped as prohibitive favourites have had much harder going than anyone earlier expected – including this writer. This may be both a commentary on the deficiencies of the campaign qualities of the two early favourites, as well as the emergence of issues – and growing voter discontents - that were relatively unanticipated but which have come forward as the most salient ones for this year’s race. So far, at least. There is much more to come. DM

Photo: People listen as U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at University of Nebraska Omaha arena, in Omaha, Nebraska, January 13, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria.

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

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