Inaugural address on steroids
President Obama is expected to emphasize jobs and the economy in his State of the Union address on Tuesday given the March 1 deadline for massive budget cuts known as sequestration. But, he will also weave in major themes from his second inaugural address, including gun rights, immigration and climate change.
We would not be surprised if he echoes the words press secretary Jay Carney used recently to warn that failure to come up with an alternative would mean “[a]cross-the-board cuts to education, to research and development would have damaging effects on our economy and our long-term economic prospects. They would also have damaging effects on border security.”
But, as both Obama and Carney have done numerous times, the president will very likely invoke the desired alternative as one of a “balanced approach … that reflects the kind of balance that allows us to make sure that the burden of deficit reduction is not borne solely by senior citizens or the middle class but more broadly; that asks the wealthiest, including corporations, to pay their fair share.”
In both his inaugural address and in several appearances before the White House press corps since his re-election, the president has touched on themes near and dear to his most fervent constituency on the left: tougher gun control legislation, the need to address climate change, and same-sex marriage.
In signing the 23 executive acts related to gun control and mental health Jan. 16, for example, the President Obama told reporters they were “in no way a substitute for acts of Congress.” He then spelled out the measures that the administration was going to work hard to enact: a universal background check for anyone trying to buy guns, a ban on military assault weapons, and a 10-round cap on magazines of ammunition.
One can “go the bank” on him hitting this hard on Tuesday, with some strong words against those who “have a pretty effective way of ginning up fear.”
Similar “red meat” rhetoric can be expected on the issues of climate change, an issue the president rarely touched on in his first term. Along those lines, he might use the tradition of introducing special guests from the gallery who would deal with climate change—perhaps Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who has been a major influence on administration environmental policy prior to her nomination last week. Obama might even introduce former Washington State Gov. Christine Gregoire, making official her expected nomination to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
What he won’t do
Where Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made strong bows to the loyal opposition in several State of the Union addresses during their presidencies, it is difficult to imagine Barack Obama doing the same Tuesday night.
Since he was re-elected with 53 percent of the vote, the president has hammered away at Republicans in Congress, notably those who comprise the majority in the House. If there is any issue in which he conceivably could strike a bipartisan note, it is that of immigration reform. The administration has praised the “Gang of Eight” composed of senators of both parties and its work on a bipartisan solution as to how to deal with the 11 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S. Last week, Rep. Xavier Bacerra (D-Calif.) announced that a similar group of House Members from both parties was “on the cusp” of a compromise on immigration reform. So the opportunity is there for the president to reach out. Whether he will remains to be seen.
On foreign policy, the president also has a considerable opportunity for bipartisanship. He can speak of turmoil in Egypt and Tunisia, economic unrest in the U.S., and the end of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. These are all areas that will generally be agreed upon by Republicans.
But, in all likelihood, these are areas Obama will only touch on rather than ask for any assistance in a “bipartisan” foreign policy. In addition, given the growing animosity among GOP senators toward his nomination of renegade Republican Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense, it is difficult to picture the president trying to find common ground with Republicans on the foreign front.
If nothing seems fresh in what the president is expected to say, it is because he has really not talked about any fresh agenda items since his re-election. As David Pietrusza, historian and author of three books on presidential elections told Human Events, “a problem for Obama is that he seems to have run out of ideas.” Politico has seconded this view, concluding that his rhetoric has a rote, “fill-in-the-blanks” quality to it.
But the annual message—delivered on prime time national television by presidents since Lyndon Johnson in 1965—can provide a major boost with the public for the person delivering it. Ronald Reagan’s conservative credentials, for example, were burnished in his final State of the Union message in 1988, when the 40th president lifted up government manuals on the House podium and declared this is what his successor should veto. Bill Clinton, making the annual address in 1999 soon after his impeachment, stole the show. He gained in popularity and even had House Republicans such as Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (with her daughter) posing for pictures with him weeks after voting for his impeachment.
Forewarned is forearmed: whatever President Obama says or does Tuesday, no matter how familiar it sounds, he could well gain from it in the eyes of the public. No one should underestimate the benefits of a prime time address to Congress by the President.