President Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union address Tuesday night, and it will go down in the annals of forgettable speeches. What did he say?
The most notable aspect of the speech was Obama’s clear, if belated, acknowledgment that with Senate Republicans abusing the filibuster rule and the tea party wreaking havoc in the House, his agenda has little hope of passing.
Critics say Obama needs to find a way to draw his opponents in, as predecessors such as Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson were able to do. It’s an interesting point, and to be sure, Obama has been weak in developing relationships in Congress.
But those critics fail to acknowledge the fact that the Republican Party, as constituted in the U.S. Congress, is something new in American politics. It is controlled by a coterie of purists that, at least until recently, would rather bring the government down than compromise on anything, even something as historically normal as raising the minimum wage or extending unemployment benefits.
Thus, it was entirely appropriate that Obama said in his speech that if Congress would not negotiate, he would do what he can administratively, with the constitutional authority he has. It was a necessary step, given the nature of his political opposition, but, in truth, a poor substitute for a Congress that actually deals with issues that are important to its voters.
Specifically, Obama plans on his own to raise the minimum wage for employees of federal contractors to $10.10 an hour from the current $7.25. A raise in the federal minimum wage is needed, and Obama’s action doesn’t come close to meeting that need. But it’s what he can do.
Comically, Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence – who voted to close down the government last year – said the president’s action “tends to set a somewhat toxic environment,” as though Collins and his tea party brethren hadn’t long ago accomplished that feat. But never mind.
The fact is that raising the minimum wage isn’t a strange idea, nor is extending unemployment benefits in the brutal aftermath of the worst recession in 80 years. Obama wants to do both, but the prospects appear dim, even though President George W. Bush raised the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour from $5.15 in 2007 – with the support of 82 Republican House members. What is more, in his 1983 State of the Union speech, Reagan proposed extending unemployment benefits. It’s nothing unusual, yet this Congress can’t bring itself to be normal.
For such reasons, including Obama’s own limitations, America is faced with a shrunken presidency, and the likelihood of its revival is slim, if history is any guide. The party of the president almost always loses congressional seats in the midterm elections of a second term in the White House. And, after that showdown, all the political oxygen is taken up by the start of the next presidential campaign.
That, perhaps, accounts for the rather listless nature of Tuesday’s address. It was in line with similar speeches by other presidents, listing goals, challenges and admonishments.
He pushed again, briefly, for immigration reform and, in suggesting that Congress not keep trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, criticized it for doing so 40-some times already. He introduced guests who helped make his political points. There were many standing ovations. It was a competent, interesting speech. But not more than that.