The leaking and speculation have already begun as Washington looks to next week’s State of the Union address. But is there any real doubt about what the president will actually say when he steps into the well of the House of Representatives next Tuesday night?
After all, didn’t his second inaugural address point the way? Not long after Inauguration Day the president’s chief speechwriter told an interviewer that it had been an unusually difficult speech to write, but how could that be true? In structure, rhetorical devises, broad themes and tone it was all but a copy of Franklin Roosevelt’s second inaugural oration.
FDR delivered his speech at the beginning of what turned out to be overreaching and largely futile second term. Shortly after Roosevelt’s second four years in office got underway and without anywhere near to having fully emerged from the economic crisis that began in 1928, the country plunged into a second downturn. Meanwhile, filled with hubris, FDR took on the Supreme Court with a court-packing scheme that even a Congress overwhelmingly of his own party rejected. And in the mid-term elections, Republican gains and the subsequent creation of a GOP-conservative Democrat alliance effectively denied him the ability to push through new domestic legislation.
Still, Mr. Obama seems to see us in a 1930s-type crisis, and he remains in an FDR state of mind. As FDR promised on taking office a second time, he announced in his second inaugural that he would champion ever-larger government.
Here are a few issues to look for:
Deficits/Debt/Spending v. Taxes: The explosion of the size of government in the last four years (from the historical 19 percent of GDP to 25 percent today) and our unreformed entitlement programs (Social Security and Medicare primarily) have put the government’s finances and the economy in a deeply dangerous place. In the face of the coming sequester, the president has announced that he wants no spending cuts, just more tax increases. For Social Security, he has embraced changes in the inflation deflator for benefits. In contrast to Republican proposals, his Social Security fix would hit current retirees rather than just future ones and has drawn opposition from both parties. So here is a question: Given Mr. Obama’s resistance to spending cuts generally, is Mr. Obama’s Social Security CPI position designed to advance reform or to create a roadblock to it?
Guns v. Mental Health: The president’s response to the Newtown horror has been to push forward an old agenda, gun control. Others have suggested that the clear, present and addressable danger is not guns themselves, but guns in the hands of the deeply disturbed, the kinds of people responsible for all recent incidents of this kind. But it turns out that Washington has a “mental health” lobby. Apparently this lobby is part of the Democratic Party’s coalition, while gun owners are considered a GOP constituency. The mental health lobby is opposed to any government initiatives that would have an impact on their group. So even though we have thousands of gun laws (9,000 is the most frequently cited number), the president has and surely will in his upcoming speech focus on ultimately ineffective and mostly unpassable measures against firearms.
Immigration: As we all know, six senators put forward a bi-partisan compromise on immigration two weeks ago. As described by Florida senator Marco Rubio, it calls for securing the border first, followed by a rapid path to a Green Card and a slower path to citizenship for those who identify themselves as being here illegally. In response to so-called “progressive” groups, Mr. Obama has since all but rejected border security first, the heart of the deal. Again, his position may be designed to present himself as forthcoming but in fact to detonate any plausible deal.
In Tuesday’s address, the president will bring up other issues, of course – the same ones he spoke about when he was sworn in, ranging from gay marriage to climate change (even though for more than a decade the earth has reportedly been cooling). But on almost all issues, the president looks likely to embrace an agenda of futility, even when very passable proposals are in circulation. Why?
The president and his advisors are reported to be playing a 2014 game, designed to win back the House of Representatives. That way, in the last two years of the Obama presidency they can return to the uncompromising agenda of the first two years.
Like his inaugural, Mr. Obama’s State of the Union address will be an ambitious move on a larger-than-the-moment political chessboard.