Too many years and too many miles change things. The raw new suburbs just north of downtown Pittsburgh in the fifties were the whole world when you’re just a kid, but after that sticky summer of 1965, it was off to college, and never looking back. And now, somehow, it’s been over thirty years in Southern California, and the last twenty years here at the edge of Hollywood, just above the Sunset Strip – with a few years working in Canada and a whole lot of trips to Paris to kick around for a few weeks each December. That changes things. That sort of thing, and college in the late sixties, in the heavily political love-peace-dope hippie years, when everything was a revolution of some kind, can turn you into a bleeding-heart liberal. Others stayed in Pittsburgh, and then some fool invented Facebook, so those who stayed and those who left are now “friends” – on general principle, because way back you hung around together. Or maybe you’re just imagining that. It doesn’t matter. You don’t know them now – they’re all Tea Party Republicans. Ah well, chalk it up to geography, or meteorological conditions. There’s far more sun out here.
All that meant that on Tuesday, January 28, 2014, there were many chains of angry Facebook posts from those barely-remembered people from the distant past on the big event of the day, Obama’s fifth State of the Union speech, scheduled for that evening. He was an arrogant tyrant who was going to bypass Congress and, by fiat – or executive order actually – take from the successful and give it all to the feckless and reprehensible poor, forcing absolute national income equality through mandatory redistribution, because he was a fool, or an evil genius. He couldn’t be both a fool and a genius, but it seemed futile to point that out. It was best to glance at the chains of angry posts and shrug. There was no point in arguing. No one was going to convince anyone of anything.
Now it’s over. Obama didn’t call for total income redistribution and full government ownership of all the means of production. It was all small-ball stuff, and before the speech John Boehner warned Obama that he could expect a “brick wall” on everything – period. Congress would decide everything. Obama basically said fine, he’d do what he could, on his own, even if it wasn’t much. At least it would be something useful.
That was about it. Each side has chosen. Does everyone want the government to do next to nothing, because, as Reagan said, government is never the answer, it’s always the problem? That’s the Republican bet. The Democrats bet the other way, betting that people want the government to do useful things. Slightly more than half the country has agreed with them for the last six years. The other half of the country never will. So be it. Nothing changes. But everyone knows the real issue is the moral evil of all forms of birth control… or something. Obama seemed energized and enthusiastic, but that was kind of pointless, unless his aim was to show he actually wanted to get stuff done, while the Republicans always want to make sure nothing ever gets done. Why not make them look dour and mean and slightly constipated? He succeeded in that.
For reference, there’s the full text and video – for political junkies and policy wonks – or this write-up from the New York Times’ Peter Baker:
After five years of fractious political combat, President Obama declared independence from Congress on Tuesday as he vowed to tackle economic disparity with a series of limited initiatives on jobs, wages and retirement that he will take without legislative approval.
Promising “a year of action” as he tries to rejuvenate a presidency mired in low approval ratings and stymied by partisan stalemates, Mr. Obama used his annual State of the Union address to chart a new path forward relying on his own executive authority. But the defiant, go-it-alone approach was more assertive than any of the individual policies he advanced.
“I’m eager to work with all of you,” a relaxed and confident Mr. Obama told lawmakers of both parties in the nationally televised speech in the House chamber. “But America does not stand still — and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
But the devil is in the details:
The main thrust of Mr. Obama’s message was the wide gap between the wealthiest and the rest of America, and he used the speech to position himself as a champion of those left behind in the modern economy. “Those at the top have never done better,” he said. “But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled.”
“The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by, let alone to get ahead,” he added. “And too many still aren’t working at all. So our job is to reverse these trends.”
To do so, the president announced an executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for future federal contract workers….
That was one of many moves, like incentives for trucks running on alternative fuels and higher efficiency standards for those running on gasoline, and a big meeting on working families, and a review of federal job training programs, but it wasn’t much:
An increase in the minimum wage passed by Congress to $10.10 from $7.25 would mean a raise for 17 million Americans and possibly help an additional 11 million indirectly as wage ladders were adjusted, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research organization.
Mr. Obama’s executive order, by contrast, will affect relatively few workers at first because it will apply only to new or renewed contracts. Eventually it might affect several hundred thousand workers at most, according to some estimates.
So this wasn’t much, but Obama said he meant it as an example. He can do this one thing. He urged states to do the same, even if congress would do nothing. He urged private employers to do the same. Give America a raise. There’ll be more customers out there for everyone. This is good for everyone – and the Republicans in the chamber sat scowling in silence, even if all the polling shows America agrees with Obama on this, and even most Republicans out there do too. The Republicans in office are the problem, and they seemed to be squirming.
That made their response predictable:
The official GOP response was given by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), the fourth-ranking Republican in the House. She criticized Obama for viewing Washington as the solution to the country’s economic problems. Republicans, she said, would choose “to grow the working middle class, not the government.”
McMorris Rodgers also took on the subject of health care, calling for the president’s health-care law to be repealed. But she offered few specifics about how to replace it: “No, we shouldn’t go back to the way things were, but this law is not working. Republicans believe health care choices should be yours, not the government’s…”
That’s what they always say, along with this:
Other Republicans issued statements criticizing Obama’s plans to bypass Congress: “After five years, President Obama is clearly out of ideas,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement afterward. “The president must understand his power is limited by our constitution, and the authority he does have doesn’t add up to much for those without opportunity in this economy.”
Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas), the firebrand now running a long-shot campaign for the Senate, apparently walked out of the speech entirely. The Dallas Morning News reported that Stockman explained his walkout through an aide: “Tonight I left early after hearing how the president is further abusing his constitutional powers. I could not bear to watch as he continued to cross the clearly-defined boundaries of the Constitutional separation of powers,” the paper quoted Stockman as saying.
He can’t DO that, and there’s a lawsuit coming. They’re probably still pissed off at an executive order from one of their own guys long ago – Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, that led to full citizenship for all those pesky black folks who now vote against them. Executive orders are such a bother. But then Obama spent the evening tweaking Republicans:
Obama, in his speech, spent an extended period talking about the healthcare law, which is both the signature achievement of his administration and – because of the terrible rollout of healthcare.gov last year – the centerpiece of Republicans’ case against him.
The president described the case of an Arizona woman who Obama said had obtained coverage January 1 because of the law. On January 6, she had emergency surgery –which, Obama said, “would have meant bankruptcy” if she had not been covered.
Then, after saying that the law had made changes for the better, Obama made a blunter argument aimed at Congressional Republicans like McMorris Rodgers.
No matter what they thought of the law, they now had no choice but to live with it.
“I know that the American people aren’t interested in refighting old battles. So again, if you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, and increase choice – tell America what you’d do differently. Let’s see if the numbers add up,” Obama said. “But, let’s not have another forty-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans like Amanda. The first forty were plenty.”
And there was more:
Obama’s speech also touched on two of his long-time priorities, which have been blocked in Congress: immigration reform, and actions to address climate change. On climate change, Obama said: “Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.”
Why not make the Republicans look dour and mean and slightly constipated? Obama was feeling his oats, and that was captured in this exchange on Andrew Sullivan’s site:
READER: Does Obama’s shift in tone and confidence on the ACA signal that this could be a mid-term issue that Democrats will run on, not from? Did he intentionally let the Republicans endlessly call for repeals without much fanfare, so that Democrats can hoist them by those votes?
SULLIVAN: Maybe. But the idea that running on universal health insurance is an inevitable loser has always seemed dumb to me. What the Democrats need to do is stay simple: tell the human stories of those finally getting the care they need; capture the emotion and relief; appeal to a common decency. And demand that the GOP offers an alternative. When they do – and a whole lot of it looks a lot like Obamacare – this debate could turn.
ANOTHER READER: This speech tonight reminds me why I voted for Obama. I think the GOP made a ghastly strategic error in choosing to stand only for obstruction, and Obama is driving them into the mat on it tonight. He’s clearly channeling the sane middle in the US electorate. The 47 percent of the nation inside the Fox bubble won’t change their minds. But Obama is reminding the majority that voted for him just why they did.
Those Facebook “friends” who never left Pittsburgh, except for a weekend in Erie or whatever, won’t change their minds either. In fact, the Atlantic’s David Graham sees nothing coming of any of this:
As expected, Obama didn’t offer many huge initiatives. But this was not a downcast president, nor, with a couple notable exceptions, was it a stern scold attacking Congress. Obama seemed energetic and ready for his “year of action.” Yet many of the policies he talked about tonight were exactly the same ones he mentioned last year. With midterm elections on the horizon, is he likely to make more progress in 2014 than he did in 2013?
With midterm elections on the horizon it pays for them to be mean, as the base wants that, although Josh Marshall isn’t that cynical:
As much as anything Obama seems comfortable (perhaps in some way liberated) with the fact that the legislative phase of his presidency is most likely over and seemed to be announcing what we call its rhetorical phase, using the bully pulpit to point a path for the country to move forward, using executive authority to nudge it forward where he can but mainly leaving a Congress that refuses to function to its own devices.
Perhaps Obama was leaving Congress behind, to fester and scowl, and argue until they all decide noting can be done, because “the other side” is a bunch of idiots, if that’s what they want to do. That’s their choice. He’ll move on, and take the nation with him.
The National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru, however, thinks that this speech wasn’t the way to do that:
It seemed like a laundry list of mostly dinky initiatives, and as such a return to Clinton’s style of State of the Union addresses. Those speeches got some bad reviews as oratory but were pretty popular and I suspect this one will go over well too. The speech gives the president the opportunity to present himself as a reasonable guy working hard for the American public, and he did an effective job of that. A few of the ideas in the speech may even be good ones: the “myRA” proposal, for example, seems like it’s worth considering. But nobody is going to remember this speech two days from now…
Yeah, well, Kevin Drum liked the speech:
Before the speech, the big buzz was about how Obama was going to focus on executive powers. If Congress wouldn’t give him what he wanted, he’d do it himself with the stroke of a presidential pen. And thanks to that buzz, this is something that every talking head was emphasizing in the postgame wrap-ups. But in reality, there was very little of that in the speech itself. Obama repeatedly used phrases like “if Congress wants to help me, they can _____” but very few of them sounded to me like ultimatums. They sounded like pretty sincere desires to work with Congress, and I’m pretty sure that’s how they came across to viewers who listened to the speech without benefit of all the pre-speech framing. If there was an iron fist of executive orders behind this, it was mostly wrapped in a velvet glove.
Will Wilkinson reframes that idea:
This was the speech of a beaten-down president putting a brave face on his struggles. Mr Obama was zippy and upbeat, but the lack of an ambitious unifying vision and the vagueness of his proposals communicated the president’s resignation to his impotence in the face of the GOP’s unrelenting, stone-walling opposition. He’s not expecting much, and neither should we.
Which is it? Was Obama being careful and nice, or had he just given up? In the National Review, Jonah Goldberg chooses the second option:
Not every idea was terrible. But no idea was particularly exciting, or all that significant. Because it lacked ambition, it was a far less offensive speech that I thought it would be. He soft-pedaled the inequality shtick, preferring instead to talk the more optimistic topic of “opportunity.” I thought this fell flat, at least in part because he tried to make it sound like the economy was going if not great, than really well. That’s a hard message to sell against the backdrop of Americans’ lived experience, not to mention the White House’s insistence that America desperately needs “emergency” extensions of unemployment payments etc.
The National Review of Ponnuru and Goldberg is a very conservative place, but the Washington Monthly of Ed Kilgore isn’t, so Kilgore is more positive:
My general reaction was that this was kind of a minimalist version of one of those second-term Clinton SOTUs that covered a lot of ground and conveyed the sense that the president was snapping his fingers impatiently at the louts sitting down there on the other side of the aisle. I regret he didn’t hit the inequality theme a lot harder – profits sky-high, wages stagnant, long-term unemployed left behind – but he made for some uncomfortable moments for GOP solons on the unemployment insurance and minimum-wage issues.
And at Mother Jones – the name says it all – David Corn says Obama didn’t go far enough:
Obama barely called out Republicans in this speech; he did not exploit this high-profile moment to confront the obstructionist opposition. He delivered heartfelt anecdotes about Americans who need a raise or who rely on Obamacare. His tone was positive; his rhetoric was uplifting. He sought to move CEOs and citizens to action. But he did little to influence the political landscape.
Yeah, he didn’t slap them around, like they deserved, but also on the left, Jonathan Chait doesn’t blame Obama for that:
A completely honest Obama speech about the economy would concede that he is nearly helpless to spur economic growth given the need to obtain consent from a Congressional party whose political interest lies in thwarting it. But he would be an idiot to say that. Americans tend to hold Obama accountable even for the actions of Congressional Republicans that lie beyond his control. (Many influential pundits do, too.) They equate the amount of time Obama devotes to talking about economic policy with his commitment to economic policy.
And so Obama is reduced to pretending the giant elephant in the room does not exist.
Scott Galupo sums it up:
Say this for Obama: he seemed upbeat, despite low polling and talk of lame-duck-ery spreading like wildfire. If nothing else, he seems aware of the fact that there will be no more major legislative accomplishments of his administration. (Count me in the camp that immigration reform remains a long shot.) If he does nothing else than push the boulder of his approval rating a few points up the hill, and thereby maintain Democratic control of the Senate, he will maintain a semblance of relevance for the last three years of his presidency.
So Obama did what he could, and nothing much will change, because nothing much can change. Maybe that’s the state of the union, and Pittsburgh will never be Hollywood – although we do shoot a lot of movies there and then hurry back here. Luckily, this speech is now over and done with, and it will be back to pictures of the mysterious grandkids on Facebook once again. That’s just as well.