The State of the Union Address is a carefully orchestrated piece of performance theater for all involved, but no more so than for the president, Barack Obama. Weighing on his shoulders this year is the nearness of the 2016 presidential election season; from both the preview the Obama administration gave and the speech itself, it’s clear the president’s goal is to give his party and himself a legacy that helps Democrats keep the White House in 2016.
In late January, when he laid out his vision for what he has called the fourth quarter of his tenure in the White House, he focused on his plans to reverse the widening gap between wealthy Americans and middle- and lower-income households. And even if this theme sounds suspiciously similar to the proposals he unveiled last year to help the middle class, it is important to remember that the State of the Union Address plays to Obama’s perceived strength. Strong shares of both Republican and Democratic voters believe he is a “good communicator,” according to Pew Research Center. But whether the president is perceived as trustworthy, a strong leader, someone who cares about average citizens, in touch with the government, and able to get things done varies hugely along partisan lines. For example, only 11% of Republicans say Obama is a strong leader, while 79% of Democrats gave the same answer. Yet his abilities as an orator do give him the opportunity to restore confidence in his plans for strengthening the American middle class.
That difference between how Republicans and Democrats perceive Obama’s strengths extends to his policies and his vision for the United States. The American electorate is increasingly partisan. Congress is also increasingly partisan, and the partisan freeze has constrained the legislative process for much of Obama’s presidency. The fact that partisan and failure to compromise has kept congressional productivity at record low levels over the past two years cannot be ignored when taking stock of the state of the union; dysfunctional legislative function and an acrimonious relationship between the Republican leaders of Congress and the White House do not make for a strong union. Still, Obama characterized the state of the union as strong, as he and his predecessors so often have, noting “the shadow of crisis has passed” thanks to the “grit” of the American people.
Last year, he announced, “Tonight, this chamber speaks with one voice to the people we represent: it is you, our citizens, who make the state of our union strong.” In 2013, the message was similar if slightly more epic, “So, together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and we can say with renewed confidence that the State of our Union is stronger,” he proclaimed. His characterization was more measured in 2012, when he noted that “the state of our Union is getting stronger … and we’ve come too far to turn back now.” He called the state of the union strong in 2011 as well. Even with the lingering hangover from the financial crisis, Obama called the union strong in 2010. By comparison, during his 2009 address to the joint session of Congress immediately after his first inauguration, the president pledged “the United States of America will emerge stronger than before” the crisis.
Since 1790, as dictated by the Constitution, every president has made an annual report to Congress that highlights the challenges of the coming year and the successes of the past year. The founders kept these health checks brief. But in modern times, with so much of the nation and the world tuned in, the State of the Union address is undeniably a moment of pomp and circumstance. In simple terms, it’s a laundry list of proposals. But, before the assembled representatives, senators, Supreme Court justices, and other guests, that list becomes symbolic of how hard the president proposes to work in the coming year. It is meant to serve as evidence that the country is on the right track. And, as such, the address is more a political tool than a meticulous accounting of the nation’s social, economic, and political health.
Obama, with his well-publicized gift for oratory, was well situated to make the most of the political theater that is the State of the Union address. In the aftermath of his 2008 election, the BBC attempted to explain how his rhetorical skills propelled him into the White House. “I believe Barack Obama embodies, more than any other politician, the ideals of American eloquence,” said Ekaterina Haskins, professor of rhetoric at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Obama’s eloquence comes from his ability to shade his words with subtle echoes of important speeches of the past, which create a sense of history, purpose, and continuity, she told the BBC. “Rhetoric always has the connotations of being about appearances rather than reality but he doesn’t sound false. He plays with the patriotic abstractions that allow for a certain kind of rhetorical manoeuvring and fills them with specific concrete examples,” Haskins added. In a similar piece for USA Today, former White House spokesman Bill Burton explained that even though “people may not remember particular lines or phrases from every speech, when he is done speaking, people always get a sense of who the president is and exactly where he is coming from.”
The president’s critics will not be appeased no matter how strong his oratory. And a simple observer can tell his rhetoric power is waning as the national experience continues to fall below the presidential vision. The changing tone of his State of the Union addresses charts this loss of hope. In 2011, Obama’s address was all about compromise; he offered to Republicans a five-year freeze in domestic discretionary spending in hopes of convincing the politically divided Congress to advance his reform agenda. The next year, coming off the debt ceiling fight that nearly pushed the federal government into default, Obama once again offered concessions but with less hope of bipartisanship. “I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum,” he said. “I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place.” Obama of 2013 was frustrated with the Republican-dominated House and increasingly powerful GOP Senate minority, neither of which showed any interest in his priorities. He had asked Congress to consider a minimum wage increase and pass a modest gun control bill, which was proposed in the aftermath of the Newton school shooting. His pleas went unheard; compromise became a distant memory; and Obama announced in 2014 that he would advance his agenda by executive action. And in November, the president used a presidential order to defer the deportations of millions of undocumented immigrants.
This year’s State of the Union address was both a culmination of his history with Republicans and a break away from his old strategy. Obama has already given the public a view of his proposals: Education, assistance for middle- and low-income workers, better working conditions, and tax breaks. This speech is not aimed at the Republican-led Congress but at voters. As the spoilers and Tuesday night’s reading showed, it was a reaffirmation of the Democratic platform. In telling voters what the Democrat party stands for, Obama was making a play for the less politically engaged voters ahead of the 2016 presidential election. And any opposition from the GOP will allow the Democrats to distinguish the party from the Republicans.
Sure, the Obama administration has been dogged by failed policies, political stagnation, and a number of scandals, but the State of the Union provides a moment to spread hope that the United States is on the right course, and more importantly, to show voters what Democrats could do without the strong opposition of Republicans. Essentially, that was the narrative of the president’s speech. Of course, if he honestly represented the State of the Union, his address would look much different. But honesty is not a virtue that gets much political mileage; even if the news is good, there is bound to be some exaggeration.
Obama didn’t ignore the economy or the recovery that he has called resurgent. He led with it. “Tonight, we turn the page. Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis,” he proclaimed. “More of our kids are graduating than ever before. More of our people are insured than ever before. And we are as free from the grip of foreign oil as we’ve been in almost 30 years.”
The president has claimed in several weekly addresses that “America’s Resurgence is real.” Resurgence is a flashy word, evoking not just recovery but rebirth and burgeoning strength. If there is one piece of evidence that supports that assessment, it is the growth in U.S. gross domestic product in the third quarter. GDP grew at a 5% annual rate from July through September — the biggest quarterly increase since the third quarter of 2003. As Bloomberg described it, “the U.S. economy roared into overdrive.” With the crises of 2008 fading into history, the economy has begun to work once again, creating the longest consecutive period of private-sector employment growth. Unemployment has dropped to 5.6%, and the U.S. is once again the strongest major economy in the world. And, in his estimation, it is because the unemployment rate is lower, more children are graduation, more people are insured, and the combat mission in Afghanistan is fianlly over, that the state of the union is strong.
Still, there are caveats. The strokes painted by GDP data are broad, and say little about how the benefits of greater economic prosperity are divided. Minimum wage may be increasing in nearly two dozen states, job creation accelerating, and economic growth rebounding, but the twin issues of income inequality and stagnant wage growth remain pressing. The average American family makes less than it did in 2000. Long-term unemployment still remains unnaturally high; the American workforce is smaller than it was before the recession; and, rates of poverty among school children are rising. Obama has not ignored these problems, and an honest appraisal of the state of the union could not ignore them. But can he really say these problems will be addressed? Obama acknowledged them. However, if he were being honest, the president would say the political polarization of the federal government is the huge and unmovable road block in the path of greater reform.
In past addresses, Obama has acknowledged that bipartisan effort is needed to solve those problems. But the fact remains that Congress is now more partisan than any time in its history. The state of the economy may be stronger, but the American political system is not. Partisan polarization has made it weak, and that is the fault of both parties. As a candidate in 2008, Obama promised to change government by embracing bipartisanship and ending the conflictual nature of American politics. That has not happened; political polarization has grown worse. But the trend toward polarization in American has complex roots, and cannot be solved by goodwill alone. For now, until the rules change, American politics are confrontational. Obama recognized that problem, but didn’t solve it.
However, he remained optimistic. He made this appeal for better politics, “where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter, and spend more time lifting young people up with a sense of purpose and possibility, asking them to join in the great mission of building America.” Obama asked Congress, “If we’re going to have arguments, let’s have arguments, but let’s make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country.”
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