Leaving it all on the Field? Obama’s Penultimate State of the Unionon 22 January 2015
By James. D. Boys
This time of year is an exciting one for international followers of the United States: of its culture, sport and politics. Recent days have seen the unveiling of the Oscar nominations, with an ensuing debate about the impact of gender and race in such selections. The coming days will see the playing of the Superbowl, the world’s most viewed sporting event. Finally, this week witnessed the delivery of the State of the Union address by the President of the United States.
All three events are hyped beyond all possible expectation. All are increasingly superficial and all have a tendency to leave views feeling underwhelmed and (particularly in the UK) somewhat regretful at having stayed up to the early hours to watch.
The State of the Union address is a high point in the American political calendar and is an event that has evolved out of all proportion from its humble origins. As directed by the US Constitution, the American President is required ‘from time to time’ to report to Congress on the state of the Union. The manner in which this has been done has evolved over the years, from a simple written report, to an afternoon speech as late as the 1960s, to today’s prime time address to the Congress, the nation and indeed the world. It is an all too rare opportunity nowadays for the president to reach a national audience. When even prime time addresses to the nation are no longer guaranteed airtime on the networks, this event has therefore, in theory, taken on an even greater importance.
Rather than seeking to ramp up expectations, however, the White House seemed determined to reduce public interest by releasing policy announcements in the days and weeks leading up to the event. This was capped by the remarkable decision of the White House to release the text of the speech as the president arrived in the chamber, almost certainly ensuring that the world knew what the president was going to say before the very members of Congress to whom he is constitutionally required to report.
Coming at this stage in Obama’s Presidency the State of the Union address was, perhaps, less about presenting tangible policy ideas that anyone expects to be implemented, and more about defining his presidential legacy and positioning the Democratic Party ahead of the 2016 election cycle that will begin in earnest any time now. President Obama’s speech therefore, was fascinating for many reasons. As his penultimate address, this was, perhaps, his final opportunity to breathe new life into an administration that is running out of time and which desperately needs to put the disaster of the 2014 midterm elections behind it.
Having spent the last couple of years researching and writing Clinton’s Grand Strategy, it was noticeable that for the first time in his presidency Obama felt able to take a line from the Clinton years, by intoning that ‘the State of the Union is Strong.’ It’s taken 6 years, but finally….
With the impending election cycle the president made a play for the female vote by highlighting the gender gap in pay and conditions and calling this an embarrassment. It should be highlighted, of course, that he has been president since January 2009, and so part of that embarrassment must be shouldered by his administration. In a similar manner the president called for changes in childcare provisions that sound logical, play well among middle class voters, but which, the Republicans will note, needs to be paid for somehow. How this was to be achieved was not made clear. (Throw some more money on the deficit, perhaps?)
There was little sign of a contrite chief executive, humbled by his party’s recent defeat in the mid-term elections. Instead, Obama made repeated pledges to veto legislation and act by Executive Authority in deviance of Congress, a stance that will do nothing to assist bi-partisanship for the remained of this time in office. For a former constitutional lecturer, Obama appears to have a rather nuanced interpretation of the role of the president as defined by the Founders, who actively sought to avoid a leader capable of ruling by decree.
Much of the speech felt like a re-tread: Like a band that has released its greatest hits, you know the best years are behind it. So too was it with Obama, who made repeated reference to his 2004 speech to the Democratic Convention (“There are no red states/blue states, there is only the UNITED States”). Such an approach, of course, merely highlighted the president’s inability to delivery on his early promise. Much of this, of course, is blamed upon his Republican opponents, who were noticeably and perhaps predictably reserved in their reaction to the president’s policy pronouncements. However, it is clear that Obama’s personality and apparent inability to forge working relations has contributed greatly to this standoff. This was evident in the speech, as the president singularly failed to congratulate new members of Congress, or welcome the new leadership team with whom he will need to work, and instead, in a rare case of ad-libbing, reminded the Republicans that he had won the last two elections. The Republican intransigence is far from helpful, but the president’s thin skin and lack of charm goes a long way to exacerbate the tensions, and stands in stark contrast to the approach adopted by his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton.
In two years time the next President of the United States will be in office. Whoever it may be, he or she, would be well advised to take a good hard look at Bill Clinton’s approach to Congressional relations as a role model for success, and to discard the efforts of the past 6 years. A grand strategy of success has hardly been a way to describe the Obama presidency as it prepares to begin its long, slow departure from the White House.
James D Boys is Associate Professor of International Studies at the University of Richmond and Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King's College, London. He tweets @JamesDBoys. His book ‘Clinton’s Grand Strategy: US Foreign Policy in a Post-Cold War World’ is published by Bloomsbury on 26 February 2015.
Image: Anna CC BY