Obama rises to the occasion: Good speech, little audience

The State of the Union speech has something in common with many by other presidents: It will be quickly forgotten.
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President Obama speaks to Congress

The State of the Union speech has something in common with many by other presidents: It will be quickly forgotten.

President Barack Obama delivers a good speech and he rose to the occasion again in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. The speech, however, drew a comparatively small national viewing audience and quickly will be forgotten. 

Republicans in Congress and elsewhere will claim that his threat of unilateral executive actions bypassing the Congress ("I will take steps without legislation") is highhanded and perhaps unlawful. But, contrary to expectations set before the speech by White House staff, he did not spell out such contemplated actions, other than to allude to his intention to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for government contract employees and to cut red tape to expedite natural-gas production. It all was put in a context, in any case, of executive actions to be taken if relevant legislation could not be passed.

States of the Union speeches are, by their nature, laundry lists. All federal departments and agencies are asked, beforehand, to submit their wish lists for inclusion. Even when winnowed, the speeches invariably become longer and less focused than they ought to be. In this case Obama, before he was done, fell victim to this syndrome.

He initially stressed his Administration's "opportunity agenda," including initiatives in education and job training, along with targeted tax incentives. He included in this the extension of long-term unemployment benefits, a legislated general increase in the minimum wage, expansion of the earned-income tax credit and student-loan payment relief. But he then fell back to a longstanding agenda intended to energize Democratic core constituencies: climate-change initiatives, gun control, women's rights and the closing of Guantanamo.  Making virtue of necessity, he strongly defended Obamacare and challenged Republicans to stop trying to repeal the legislation. 

Obama was weakest in his claims of financial and economic progress over the past five years and in his generic defense of Obamacare. As anticipated, he spent only a few minutes on national security and foreign policy, stressing in particular his commitment to veterans home from wars. He pledged again a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by year's end, leaving the door open, however, for a small residual force if negotiations with the Afghan government prove successful. He made claims of progress in negotiations with Iran that were met with bipartisan congressional skepticism. A large group of congressional Democrats and Republicans are sponsoring legislation that would automatically reimpose sanctions on Iran if current nuclear-control negotiations fail. Obama said he would veto such legislation if it reached his desk.

Not surprisingly, polling during the speech showed Democrats generally approving, Republicans disapproving, and independents in-between although tilted toward skeptical.

Within 24 hours few of us will be able to remember specific policy proposals Obama made in his State of the Union speech. (The same could be said about most modern-era State of the Union addresses by presidents of both political parties). Instead, we will be left with a generalized impression of the president's delivery of the speech, which was vigorous and effective, and our overall feelings about the state of things that existed before the speech. The latter involve fundamentals that the speech could not change:

  • Presidential second terms are historically unproductive and second-term State of the Union words seldom get translated into legislative action. Additionally, Obama's approval ratings are at their all-time low and his political leverage therefore further limited.
  • Despite clear and present offshore issues in Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria and other places, public opinion is firmly fastened right now on domestic issues — especially on employment, the health of the economy and uncertainty over Obamacare.
  • The Congress and country are polarized politically and ideologically. The rollout problems of Obamacare have shaken public confidence and frightened congressional Democrats facing midterm elections 280 days from now. At present those elections appear likely to leave the House of Representatives in Republican hands and possibly give the GOP control of the Senate, making Obama a literal bystander in his final two years in office. National media coverage already is focusing on Hillary Clinton's prospective 2016 presidential candidacy and on the travails of the 2016 GOP frontrunner, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
  • Seattleites, beset by 12th Man fever, are far more interested in this coming Sunday's Super Bowl and, for that matter, Bertha's unboring difficulties and the prospect of whopping cost overruns for the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel.

Well, you catch my drift. Only political junkies and media truly paid attention Tuesday night and those who did were mainly interested in the domestic agenda.

What Obama did most effectively Tuesday night was to stress issues and actions that rally core Democratic constituencies and candidates that had been drifting away from him.

Lest the current political situation seem altogether hopeless, congressional leaders on Monday unveiled bipartisan farm legislation, which would reduce overall federal agricultural-program spending while expanding crop insurance and reducing direct payments to farmers. There still is hope that the White House, Senate and House will be able to agree in 2014 on bipartisan immigration-reform legislation, although more likely with incremental changes than a comprehensive big fix.

State of the Union messages from President Thomas Jefferson onward were not presented as speeches to the Congress but, instead, in written documents. President Woodrow Wilson departed from custom and delivered a speech in 1913, changing the pattern. Other presidents have faced difficult political contexts, such as Obama faced Tuesday night, at State of the Union time and no doubt have wished they could return to the pre-Wilson tradition and mail the whole thing in. Obama excels as a speaker, however, and turned in a good podium performance Tuesday.

Only one or two State of the Union speeches in any president's tenure really have significance. On the other hand, annual State of the Union messages force a president to gather his thoughts and reconsider his priorities and agenda at least once a year.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.