By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
(Originally published January 29, 2014) For those who missed it, or for those who chose to watch something else on television (for North Americans, the Weather Channel was certainly a worthy distraction considering the conditions wrought by Polar Vortex III), President Barack Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union speech to Congress and the nation.
His address lasted roughly 65 minutes and covered the gamut of what he hopes to accomplish over the next two years of his presidency.
Widely considered by most analysts as eloquent, far-reaching and “feisty” (CBS and NBC both used the “F” adjective, something meant to convey an attitude of delivery just short of “combative”), the President for the first time in many years gave a speech that contained mostly domestic policy, with very little time spent on international relations, terrorism or war.
And as has been the pattern for several years now, dating back to the last couple of State of the Union addresses by George W. Bush, the room was notably divided. There were scant occasions when the president received anything more than polite applause from the Republican members present, and when the Democrats in the room were in standing ovation mode, their GOP comrades sat in smiling silence, or, at the best, engaged in grudging “air” applause.
In fact, the longest stretch of applause came when the president recognized the astonishing sacrifice made by war hero Cory Remsburg. Remsburg, who was injured badly by an improvised explosive device and has struggled through a slow recovery process, received a ninety second standing ovation from nearly everyone present. It was a rare moment of genuine unity in a room prone to divisiveness and gridlock.
In all, the President (by my count) was interrupted by applause roughly 75 times, and received ovations at least 20 times. Predictably, those ovations were mostly the work of Democrats in the room.
But there was an undercurrent of energy to Obama’s address that seemed both genuine, if not a bit desperate.
The President sought last night to jumpstart his second term, and he labelled 2014 “a year of action.” In the last four months, he has watched as his job approval ratings have fallen across a broad spectrum of polling, and these declines have been the most severe of his presidency. Even some of the president’s most loyal advocates have acknowledged that there have been problems: a sluggish economy, falling wages, a disastrous roll-out of his health care program, and—perhaps most ominously—another set of poll numbers showing that Americans, regardless of their politics and their economic circumstances, feel pessimistic about their future. Not merely uncertain, but gloomy.
Thus the emphasis, both by the president, and in the GOP’s response, on crucial domestic issues: jobs, economic growth, opportunity, government spending and health care.
At the core of the debate in the news cycles leading up to Tuesday’s speech was the president’s newfound determination to act—unilaterally, if necessary—on certain policy issues. Seeking to simply bypass a gridlocked Congress, he plans to act on his own on a short list of priorities. Some Republicans expressed deep skepticism, and others offered that the president is simply seeking to bypass the U.S. Constitution. The president’s defenders and spokespersons declared that Obama must act according to his values and his instincts, and that he cannot wait on a deeply divided Congress to climb aboard.
This sets the stage for more heavy combat in Washington, and many observers expect the GOP to make much of the issue of a president engaged in lawmaking by decree or fiat.
But even analysts inclined to support the president observed that his speech was notably short on specifics, and vague on those occasions when he might have been able to easily offer details. His much-ballyhooed action on the minimum wage, for example, which was initially reported in much of the media as a general increase, in fact is only designed to increase wages of federal contractors—certain types of federal contractors—and only those who will be hired after about March 1. And though the wage increase is meant to be the first salvo in a plan to raise the federally-mandated minimum wage for all workers, some economists and political observers were skeptical that his $10.10 executive action would have much effect on the larger economy.
Much of the president’s speech focused on the economy and jobs. Though he was able to point toward the good numbers, such as a general decrease in unemployment, he notably demurred on the issue most troubling to many business analysts and economists—underemployment, people working part-time jobs just to survive, a prevalence of extremely low wage jobs, and the millions of Americans whose unemployment benefits have run out and therefore are no longer “counted” in the monthly statistics. In this area, Americans seem the most gloomy according to several recent polls.
In these areas especially, the president stressed his willingness to proceed by executive action. But in these very same arenas we can expect Republican resistance.
Nevertheless, the White House plans to get aggressive with its plan to roll out unilateral presidential action on a number of initiatives. And even his supporters acknowledge that his inability to find consensus and sway Congress has led him to this position of acting alone. Further, the President has lost some support even among liberals and progressives, once his strongest backers. Obama’s conciliatory approach meant that progressives, over time, were dissatisfied with his cozy relationship with Wall Street and big bankers, his deferential approach to the detainee program at Guantanamo, his flip-flop on what he had originally planned to be a fast withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, his expanded use of drones in the war on terror, and his seemingly easy embrace of the NSA’s surveillance program of data collection. (See Obama’s Progressive Deficit; Thursday Review, January 27, 2014).
Among the specific things the president requested: an extension of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which the president hopes will continue to provide tax relief for Americans who fall in the below-middle-income range. Some Republicans agree with this plan, since it may create a favorable path toward their own opposition of a federally-mandated wage increase.
The president also touched upon his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act.
“Because of this law,” he said, “no American can ever again be dropped, or denied coverage, for a pre-existing condition like asthma, back pain or cancer. No woman can ever be charged more simply because she’s a woman. And we did all of this while adding years to Medicare’s finances, keeping Medicare payments flat, and lowering prescription costs for millions of seniors.”
But Republicans were notably unmoved by the president’s remarks on health care. During the weekend and in the run-up days before the speech, GOP leaders made it clear that they still regard Obamacare as unacceptable, another indication of the divisions in Washington. Furthermore, some analysts pointed out that Obama’s claims regarding Medicare costs and prescription prices are inaccurate: some components of those costs have actually increased during that period.
The President also briefly touched on Iran and its nuclear program, an issue, which for some, is of immediate international concern. Stressing that diplomacy and negotiation must be given a fair chance at success, and pointing to the delicacy of the current negotiations, Obama deferred on the question of sanctions or of a potential future in which military options may be used.
Many in Congress, including some Democrats, are concerned that diplomatic delays may simply enable Iran to proceed in secret with its nuclear program, while simultaneously granting the Islamic state a reprieve form the harshest of sanctions.
And among the other domestic areas in which the president declared his willingness to go-it-alone: the permitting processes for major public works processes, such as highways, bridges, waterways, tunnels and other infrastructure projects and upgrades. Obama sees fast-tracking those large scale projects as essential to put thousands of people back to work, especially in construction. But some analysts at the state level suggest that the problem is not permitting but money, and until Congress approves the funds many of the major projects will continue to languish.
The White House plans to refine and sharpen the central message of a president who sees no alternative but to act alone on several major initiatives.
The GOP responses were tactful but blunt: the president does not have the authority to act on many of his economic proposals without approval from Congress.
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