- AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, pool
- President Obama delivers his State of the Union address to Congress last year. Few of his proposals came to pass.
Another State of the Union address is coming tomorrow to a flat screen near you, and I bet you can hardly wait.
Last year President Obama extolled the “grit and determination of the American people” who comprise the “greatest nation on Earth” and who, of course, have “the best military the world has ever known.” Bragging about America is SOP in the SOTU.
Obama will also list his proposals tomorrow, few of which will be achieved, because with this Congress, the POTUS is SOOL.
In his SOTU last year, the president said: “Let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty, and [let’s] raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour.”
The federal minimum wage in the wealthiest nation on Earth then was $7.25, and so it remains. Tomorrow, Obama likely will again call for an increase—this time to $10.10 by 2016, in accordance with a Senate bill. At least the president’s minimum-wage proposal keeps rising, if not the wage itself.
Also from the 2013 SOTU: “Tonight, I propose a ‘Fix-It-First’ program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country. . . . Let’s prove that there’s no better place to do business than here in the United States of America, and let’s start right away. We can get this done.”
No, we can’t. “Fix-It-First” today is still just another unfunded idea. If only the bridges were all that was structurally deficient in the world’s best place to do business.
And, of course, last year there was also Obama’s poignant call for gun-control legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre. “I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence,” the president allowed. But, he insisted, “this time is different. Senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals.”
“Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress,” Obama said to applause. “Now, if you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote.”
He told the story of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old Chicago girl who “loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss”—a majorette who performed in the president’s inauguration festivities, and who was shot to death a week later a mile from Obama’s house. He pointed out her parents in the House chamber. “They deserve a vote,” the president said. “Gabby Giffords”—the congresswoman who was shot in the head near Tuscon and survived—”deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. . . . The countless other communities ripped open by gun violence—they deserve a simple vote.”
What could have been more moving? The victims and their families did indeed get a vote—on background checks—in the Senate in April. They lost it. So much for “this time is different.”
Obama has given up on Congress, and his aides maintain he will govern increasingly with his pen—through his power of executive action. Obama became president hoping for a nation not of red states and blue states, just the United States. Five years later, he’s left with red pens and blue pens. And there are limits, both legal and political, to what he can accomplish with them.
Instead of absorbing the spin of another SOTU, you ought to make time for David Remnick’s 17,000-word story on Obama in the January 27 New Yorker. Remnick, the editor of the magazine, talked with the president aboard Air Force One and in the Oval Office. You’ll learn much more about the state of the union, and Obama’s outlook, from the article than from the speech.
The story is not cause for optimism, at least in the short run. The president seems weary. At a fund-raiser in a Seattle suburb, he seemed to be “running at three-quarters speed,” Remnick writes, “. . . performing just hard enough to leave a decent impression, get paid, and avoid injury.”
And it’s not just that the president isn’t putting out at fund-raisers in order to save himself for his real work. Obama knows that most of his major legislation will not pass, Remnick observes, “and so there is in him a certain degree of reduced ambition.”
“The nature of not only politics but, I think, social change of any sort is that it doesn’t move in a straight line,” Obama tells Remnick. Those who succeed, he says, “typically are tacking like a sailor toward a particular direction but have to take into account winds and currents and occasionally the lack of any wind, so that you’re just sitting there for a while, and sometimes you’re being blown all over the place.”
Obama also tells Remnick that the president is “essentially a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history. You don’t start with a clean slate, and the things you start may not come to full fruition on your timetable. But you can move things forward.”
Those are revealing metaphors—more revealing, perhaps, than Obama intended. A swimmer in a river full of rapids is not likely to be moving much forward. He’s too busy working to stay afloat while being knocked this way and that. It may indeed be the best a president can do, at least with a Congress like the present one. But it’s a depressingly long way from “Yes, We Can”.