The State of the Union (SOTU) address can be considered an institutionalized “bully pulpit” for the President of the United States. It is delivered yearly on the last Tuesday in January. As expected, the President forcefully made his case for new proposals to Congress before a primetime television audience.
President Obama’s speech was delivered in the midst of low approval numbers (43 percent), and after what many have termed 2013–Obama’s annus horribilis. Beginning the sixth year of his presidency with his Democratic Party bracing for a potentially tough mid-term election cycle, it is fair to speculate about whether Obama is already facing a premature lame duck status.
For those of us north of the border, we tend to follow the SOTU with keen interest, but very rarely expect to see Canada in the forefront. The battle over the Keystone Oil pipeline project is of interest, but judging from the President’s general statements about U.S. energy, Canadian officials were not given any indication of a decision coming soon. The President spoke of the progress made due to his energy policies, the rising importance of renewable energy sources, and stated emphatically that “climate change is a fact”. For the opponents of Keystone, these comments were likely encouraging. For the proponents, it seems the wait is not yet over.
By most indicators, the President presented an upbeat, action-oriented speech displaying the right emotional tone with emphasis on economic growth, financial security, income inequality, childhood education, and upward economic mobility. He also outlined an ambitious foreign policy agenda including the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, Iran Nuclear power talks and an Afghanistan security agreement.
Obama began the SOTU by highlighting the achievements of individual citizens from different walks of life to illustrate that America was not “standing still.” It was his way of affirming that the “State of the Union is strong.” He ended his address by singling out individuals who performed acts of courage and valor to illustrate once again that America is strong.
While the speech was generally well received and the Democrats seemed overjoyed, a closer look at reality would lead most observers to evaluate the possibilities of Obama achieving his goals and reversing his current poll numbers as somewhat modest. Immigration reform remains the priority, as well as a possibility, and the minimum wage may be a winning issue, but achieving the rest of his agenda is highly uncertain in this polarized political atmosphere. After all, in 2013 only two of his 41 policy demands (asks) resulted in concrete action.
This is why Obama has presented the possibility of executive action if Congress fails to cooperate. As a second term president, he realizes that consolidating first term achievements and initiating new initiatives represent the general thrust of his mandate. We can also expect that international issues will be an increasing focus as the Obama administration faces the next presidential cycle involving potential successors at this time next year.
We know the Republicans intend to make Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act, a first term achievement) an election issue in the fall of 2014 with the hope they can win both houses of Congress. The failed rollout of the Affordable Care Act has given them confidence that it is a winning issue, and some Democrats in red states are running scared. We also expect that a new debt ceiling showdown will occur in a few weeks, and while a government shutdown and a government default is unlikely, we can anticipate the GOP to attempt to extract promises regarding deficit reduction and reducing the size of government
Overall, the President seemed to concede at the end of the day that the gains in Congress will indeed be modest. As a result, he is resigned to use presidential decrees to initiate certain measures dealing with economic growth, reducing income inequality and advancing upward economic mobility. Combining executive action with progress on comprehensive immigration reform, the Obama administration will likely consider 2014 a rebound year.
If the Democrats keep control of the Senate next November, we can in all likelihood assess Tuesday’s State of the Union address as indeed Obama’s last hurrah.