State of the Union addresses are all primarily exercises in political theatre. Thus viewers must endure the ceremonial grand entrance of the President, the artificial rounds of applause to assertions and “initiatives” that have already been publically released, and the tiresome “letters” and appearances of individuals who are used as props for contrived metaphors about “who we are as Americans”. All of this is followed now by a “response” from the out of power political party and both addresses are the subject of immediate “analysis” by partisan “experts”. President Obama’s 2015 address was no exception, and as if the American public expected no less, television viewership was the lowest in fifteen years. In the period between Presidents George Washington and Woodrow Wilson, the Constitutional requirement for such messages was fulfilled by a letter which was read on the floor of Congress by a clerk. It would be an act of political mercy if that practice would be renewed.
However, Obama’s address was delivered as usual and varying degrees of substance and importance have been attributed to it. Several things stand out.
Inconsistency in both style and substance: Here are some excerpts:
“So tonight, I want to focus less on a checklist of proposals, and focus more on the values at stake in the choices before us.”
1. “…my plan will make quality childcare more available, and more affordable, for every middle-class and low-income family with young children in America, by creating more slots and a new tax cut of up to $3,000 per child, per year.”
2. “Send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave.”
3. “. . . pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work.”
4. “. . . raise the minimum wage.”
5. “. . . pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than 30 times as many jobs per year”.
6. “. . . I am sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college to zero.”
7. “Tonight, I’m launching a new Precision Medicine Initiative. . .”
8. “And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the (Cuban economic) embargo.”
Fortunately the President didn’t focus on whatever his version of a “real checklist” is or the address would have gone into the next day.
But inconsistency in substance was readily apparent also. After spending a substantial part of his address reciting his “non-check list”, towards the end of the hour-plus speech Obama offered this brief “concession” to political and constitutional reality:
“And I commit to every Republican here tonight that I will not only seek out your ideas, I will seek to work with you to make this country stronger.”
Ignoring that American voters spoke forcefully just weeks ago when Obama said himself that “. . . my policies are on the ballot.”, this flaccid “commitment to listen and “seek to work” with Republicans at the end of his speech, was exposed as political posturing by the veto threats for Republican legislation that hadn’t even been passed by the Congress.
Obama’s post-election assertiveness demonstrated by his extra-legislative “executive orders” and veto threats is apparently emboldened by the narrative that liberal commentators have constructed in an attempt to discredit the Republican sweep. They are essentially saying that the election didn’t count as a measure of public discontent with Democrats because it was a “low turnout” election and most of the Senate races occurred in historically conservative states. But these analytical contortions require one to ignore the facts that voters who previously turned out to vote for Obama and other Democrats stayed home for a reason, which polls measuring Obama’s low approval ratings could explain. The claim that most of the Senate races occurred in conservative states ignores the fact that four Democratic Senate incumbents in these states were defeated and replaced with Republicans. Also ignored is the fact that the entire House of Representatives was up for reelection and numerous Democratic incumbents and candidates were defeated giving the Republicans the largest majority in decades. The Republican victory was capped off by the election of two Republican governors in the deeply liberal states of Massachusetts and Maryland, as well as significant increases in Republican seats across the nation’s state legislatures.
After his 2008 victory, Obama told Congressional Republicans “Elections have consequences and I won.” But apparently that simple truth only applies when Democrats win.
Here is how Obama described how he is going to “work with” Republicans.
“And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, (reforming Obamacare, immigration executive orders, Dodd-Frank bank regulations) it will have earned my veto.”
On the possibility that Republicans might pass legislation imposing additional economic sanctions on Iran if they fail to meet the third deadline for serious commitments to abandon their nuclear weapons program:
“… I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.”
Nonetheless, Obama’s check list of legislative initiatives will be well received by many for the simple reason that promising government services and financial support will, on an individual level, be popular with those in the targeted groups.
The level of cynicism in these promises however is significant since Obama knew that few if any of his proposals would be passed into law by the Republican controlled Congress. Thus Obama was simply engaging in a political ploy in an attempt to put Republicans at a disadvantage in the 2016 elections by casting them as denying benefits to the “middle class”.
The Republican opposition to some of these proposals however will be based on realities which went unmentioned by the President. The collection of gifts to certain groups for the most part requires increased government spending and increased taxes. The Obama Administration estimates that the cost of his “free tuition for community colleges” program will be six billion dollars per year and that state governments will be required to pay for twenty-five percent of this cost. An additional feature of the plan would be the cancellation of an existing college tuition savings plan that provides tax exempt status for investment gains over the life of the savings plan.
Obama’s proposal to provide up to a $3,000 tax credit for 6.7 million children would cost up to two billion dollars a year based on the Administration’s own numbers.
All of these huge costs would be partially paid for with higher taxes on the “rich”.
Other of Obama’s proposals simply fall into the category of more political posturing. A “one size fits all” federally mandated minimum wage makes no sense. Wages at all levels vary greatly by region. A minimum wage in New York City should be much different than one in Jackson, Mississippi. Many states and cities across the nation have already instituted local minimum wage laws which reflect local economic conditions.
The Equal Pay Act of 1963, as amended in 1979, already “ makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work.” Non-ideological academic studies which take into account the relevant variables in employment have demonstrated that very little gender based pay variability exists in the private sector.
A bi-partisan job creating infrastructure bill that represents a first step in the political process with no down side is the Keystone XL pipeline project that will create 42,000 construction jobs lasting at least two years and pump most of its 8 billion dollar cost into the U.S. economy. Millions more would enter the economies of the communities which the pipeline crosses in the form of property taxes assessed on the pipeline itself. Obama has promised to veto pending legislation in the Congress to approve the pipeline’s construction.
This all occurs in a context of continuing federal deficits, (Obama is proud that his administration has reduced spending money it doesn’t have to “only” $483 billion in 2014. He ignores the now 18 trillion dollar accumulated deficits which constitute the federal debt. The “uniter” of 2009 also continues his social/economic policy wedge tactic of demonizing success, (the “greedy rich”) to pick up the tab for these hugely expensive new social programs that could be paid for by cutting the plethora of non-essential and inefficient government programs already in place.
There are several areas where bipartisan cooperation is possible including infrastructure spending, international trade policy and tax reform but a new spirit of cooperation to “get things done” as the voters in November seemed to demand won’t be served with more legislation by executive order, arbitrary veto threats, and a list of non-negotiable demands by the President.
Republicans in the Congress also have an obligation to be open to compromise without surrendering fundamental political principals since they do not control the White House. Sacrificing the doable in pursuit of the ideologically perfect and politically impossible would turn the 2014 election victory into a historical footnote. They are off to a problematic start with their internally and nationally divisive focus on yet another anti-abortion legislative initiative early in the new congressional session. Emphasis on social issues pays few dividends and are largely already in the hands of the federal courts. The 2016 election will be determined by credibility on economic and national security issues and voters will punish those in Congress who do not perform.