President Barack Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union Address Wednesday night and many say he was playing “small ball”. The President united Congress and the distinguished guests in an emotional ovation to one of our nation’s wounded soldiers nearing the end of his speech. Nevertheless, this was short-lived as it seemed that Obama filled his rhetoric with the same ideas he promoted last year and from his first term in office. This year’s State of the Union Address was in stark contrast to the speech Obama gave at the 2004 Democratic Convention which was bursting with hope and optimism that catapulted him to the national spotlight.
“Let’s make this a year of action,” Obama emphatically stated. Movement in Washington is much-needed to resolve the myriad of problems that are plaguing partisan politics. The American people are fed up with stagnant growth out of the recession and failed policy implementation attempts. This is evident as the President’s poll numbers are dipping and Congress is rated at a historical low – 9%.
The president has faced two problems: an unindustrious Congress and lackluster economy. He explained that even in the middle of an economic recovery, far too many Americans are working more than ever just to make ends meet and countless Americans are still without employment. One of Obama’s remedies is to raise the minimum wage from a federally-mandated $7.25 to $10.10 for federal contract workers. Republicans have offered to negotiate over the measure by offering tax credits rather than an outright increase in minimum wage. Although addresses are mainly just “talk”, the president has threatened to act unilaterally and is unwavering in his plan to increase wages for all workers.
Obama stated before the address that he would not be making any extensive proposals in his speech to the American people. The president explained, though, that he is seeing to create, “new ladders of opportunity.” He wants to focus on the hopes and aspirations of the American people.
While it may have been a somewhat rousing discourse for his electoral base and his political hopefuls, his address was restrained and empty. It lacked a sense of urgency and resoluteness in addition to undoubtedly being oversold by the White House. He was also not as combative as he has been towards conservative Republicans. By this gesture, it can only be inferred that he was using the stage of the State of the Union Address to play small ball with political leaders.
The New York Times gave bullish praise to the president’s address by stating that Obama has declared independence from Congress after five years of political conflict. He declares that he will alleviate economic disparity from the American people with new initiatives on jobs, wage compensation, and retirement income without congressional approval. In regards to the president’s vow to act without Congress, Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R) stated late last week, “We have a constitution.”
Although he may perceive Congress as the adversary of his legacy, the president will be unable to produce distinct policy initiatives without the help of the House and Senate. While political gridlock may be the product of a Congress that has been hitherto unproductive at the most, Obama still needs to abide by the constitutional guidelines regarding his ability to sign executive orders into law.
As for entertaining a broad theme of inequality, the president did not disappoint. The same song and dance is being played to a divided nation regarding political, social, and economic inequality and Obama is orchestrating that symphony. Concerning minimum wage, he called on Congress to enact a similar proposal during last year’s State of the Union. While the proposal sat on the steps of the Capitol being debated by Republicans who said that it would suppress job creation amidst the sluggish recovery, the president stood back and watched. The endless debates and stagnant improvements from Washington has 63% of Americans believing that the country is currently on the wrong track.
President Obama’s signature bill, the Affordable Healthcare Act (ACA) was surprisingly not as prominent in his address as it has been in the media. He recognized that the ACA has had problems in its initial rollout, but wouldn’t offer any solutions – probably why it was buried in the second half of his address. He also didn’t say he would be working with his Republicans colleagues to create a comprehensive solution. Nonetheless, by not stemming away from the core principles of the ACA, he shielded himself from having to articulate any substantive concessions or expend any political capital.
With a blatant dividedness among the legislature, the president is at risk of having a lame-duck term. Therefore, how can Obama save his second term? Many of his signature policy initiatives are long-term goals. Right now, the president needs a short-term policy victory which will have the potential to boost his administration’s morale. While he only devoted one paragraph to it during his address, Obama hinted that he is willing to work with a bipartisan legislature on comprehensive immigration reform. If the president can uphold this undertaking his job approval numbers will climb back into the high 40’s.
As for the overall consensus of the address, Fox News Contributor, Charles Krauthammer made comparisons to Bill Clinton. “He sounds like a president who realized he’s not going to get it down…and now he’s playing small ball,” he said. The speech mirrors President Clinton’s address in the mid-90’s after a Republican takeover of Congress. In his latter years, Clinton was unable to move as swiftly as he wanted through policy debates as pushback from the Republicans was creating gridlock.
Tuesday’s State of the Union Address showed that Obama will not stop until he can implement his plan for America. In his first term Democrats held both houses of Congress and the president was able to work rather efficiently with the legislature to progress is ultimatum. However, after the Tea Party takeover of the House in 2010, he realizes is political potential is being diminished by opposing views in Congress.
President Obama’s address may have captivated his base; however, that is a base that is diminishing in power every day. As the president goes forth into the depths of his second term in office, he will attempt to progress unilaterally with unfavorable policy implementations that will further divide our already bifurcated nation. Obama no longer has the heavy-hitter status he did half-a-decade ago. If his second term is at all foreshadowed by his State of the Union Address, the basketball-loving statesman will undeniably be playing small ball in the second half.
By: Alex Lemieux