Obama speech: Already a bittersweet aura around his presidency

News analysis: The president again chooses to confront Congress rather than cooperate.
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President Barack Obama delivering the 2015 State of the Union

News analysis: The president again chooses to confront Congress rather than cooperate.

President Barack Obama delivered his next-to-last State of the Union address last night. It was a bittersweet exercise.

Obama came to office with promise and broad support six years ago. His party controlled both House and Senate. He faced a Republican-majority chamber last night. The proposals he presented have little chance of enactment. They generated applause among most Democrats in the chamber and Democratic core constituencies in the country, but will be on hold for at least another two years.

Obama's speech was, as one commentator properly described it, "a left-of-center speech to a right-of-center audience."

There were few surprises since excerpts had been leaked over the past several days. The most controversial components: $320 billion in tax increases over the next 10 years for high-income Americans; $235 billion in tax breaks for middle-income Americans. A number of new federal spending programs were proposed as part of what Obama termed "middle-class economics."

On foreign policy, Obama called for congressional approval of use of force against ISIS, which probably will be granted. But his claims of progress against ISIS, and in Crimea, Iraq and Afghanistan, no doubt will be challenged — especially in light of Tuesday's threatened collapse of the Yemeni government. He threatened to veto any congressional attempt to tighten sanctions on nuclear-aspiring Iran. But many Democrats, as well as Republicans, favor such tightening. He drew mixed reactions to his proposals to "lift the embargo on Cuba," which probably will happen, and to close Guantanamo, which probably will not.

Obama, beforehand, had to choose between his aggressively partisan posture of the past six years or a more bipartisan approach in the face of Republican control of both houses of Congress. He chose the former. 

In making his choice, Obama reduced the already small-chances of legislative achievements from now until the end of his term. (Presidential second terms, historically, have been unproductive over their last two years, regardless of the makeup of the Congress.) But he raised the spirits, in particular, of Democratic partisans and populists who wanted him to actively pursue their agenda by executive order, legislative initiative or other means so as to lay down markers for 2016.

There are a couple of big factors to consider.

The surrounding policy climate: From Obama's 2009 inaugural until recently, the American financial system and economy had been less than stable. Economic and job growth had been the slowest on record coming out of any downturn short of Depression. Tax revenues thus had been limited. Deficits and residual debt kept growing.

But a corner has been turned in recent weeks. Growth has speeded. The unemployment rate has moved downward toward 5.5 percent. The federal budget remains in deficit but not at levels of the past several years. Retail gasoline prices have plunged.

Global economic weakness may make the comeback unsustainable.  But, as of last night, the president faced an American audience feeling better about the state of the U.S. economy and their prospects within it (and about the president personally). Major concerns remain the shrinking of the U.S. industrial sector and unacceptable rich-poor income disparities.

The surrounding political climate: Democratic congressional losses last fall, added to those of 2010, have put Republicans in their strongest political position in the capital in many years. Obama began his presidency with 257 Democrats holding House of Representatives seats; now there are 188, the smallest number since 1949. Eleven states have no Democrats in their congressional delegations. Democrats held 57 Senate seats (plus two independents caucusing with Democrats) in 2009; now they hold 44 (plus two independents).

Republicans also have gained at state level. They have 32 of the 50 governorships and control 68 state legislative chambers.

Some Democratic analysts regard 2014 setbacks as anomalies, pointing to low turnout among younger and other voters who could be expected to vote in presidential-election years. But weak turnout in your party's base should not be a reason for optimism.

President Obama has surprised many, including myself, by not taking a more bipartisan path to governance after 2010 and 2014 midterm losses. President Clinton shifted, after 1994 loss of the Democratic House majority, and was successful in making budget, tax, welfare reform and trade deals with Republican involvement and support. Other presidents have made similar shifts after losing one or both houses of Congress to the opposition. Several modern presidents have governed successfully while the Congress was in opposition-party control over their entire time in office.

Republican congressional leaders, in any case, are at this juncture furious with Obama. They expected post-2014 election overtures of cooperation, in particular, in framing immigration, tax, trade and budget legislation rather than the end-of-year executive orders that he issued. There seemed a possibility that broad Simpson-Bowles entitlement, tax and budget reform proposals might be revived. That is not going to happen.

White House spokesmen declare that the president still is interested in cooperation and that he "went on the offensive" in his State of the Union address to establish strong negotiating positions in debate to come.

It is difficult to feel anything but sadness and disappointment that Obama's tenure is winding down as it is. He came to the presidency after only brief experience in the Illinois and U.S. Senate. By nature a loner, he did not establish close relationships with either Democratic or Republican congressional leaders. After six years in the White House, few know him.  Obama, for his part, has often seen governance as the deliverance of a speech or statement, to be followed by Congressional and public approval. Negotiation and horse-trading are not in his DNA. He seems determined now to leave his mark with end-of-term proposals, which might be enacted after he is gone.

The president's situation is in many ways similar to that of Gov. Jay Inslee in Washington. Inslee runs no Defense Department and need not worry about war-peace issues. He is decidedly not a lame duck and thus has greater political leverage than Obama. But he has made tax and spending proposals that legislative Republicans strongly oppose. It remains to be seen if common ground can be found or if D.C.-style polarization and a situation comparable to the president's will develop for the governor. 


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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.