State of the Union speech signals Obama’s bell lap in race toward his legacy

The Globe and Mail

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 12, 2013. (JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)

Despite all the hoopla, the inflated rhetoric and a television audience of more than 40 million, history shows that the State of the Union addresses of most U.S. presidents have little connection with reality. They are not so much a political blueprint as they are a wish list, with many of those wishes not coming true.

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That’s why promises of job creation dominated the first four of U.S. President Barack Obama’s addresses to Congress: the promises were never fully kept. Unemployment in the United States is still almost 8 per cent and the number of people unemployed – 12.3 million – is almost identical to the number of unemployed when Mr. Obama took office four years ago.

Even in manufacturing, where the President has placed a great deal of his emphasis, calling it in last year’s speech “a blueprint for an economy that’s built to last,” the sector has lost 606,000 jobs since the first Obama inauguration.

The same can be said for the repeated vows to raise taxes on the very rich, to halve the deficit and to cap carbon emissions.

The emphasis this year on immigration reform should prove more successful since Republicans, too, want to attract the Latino voters and offering a program for illegals to “earn” their citizenship doesn’t upset Republican sensibilities. The heart-tugging call for greater gun control, however, even in the wake of the Connecticut school massacre, is less likely to be as politically popular.

Those looking to the address for evidence of foreign policy initiatives should look elsewhere. While Mr. Obama has always been pleased to use the Capitol podium to announce troop withdrawals whether from Iraq or Afghanistan, or to denounce unlicensed nuclear aggression by countries such as Iran and North Korea, the event is not traditionally the occasion for most foreign laundry to be aired.

Canada was not mentioned in the four previous Obama speeches to Congress, and even Israel, a topic of so much attention during his first term, was referred to only twice: a brief reference in the first address in 2009, and another in last year’s address.

While Mr. Obama’s two inaugural addresses have included oratorical high notes, the President’s hour-long State of the Union addresses have included few such notes and no truly memorable moments.

There has been nothing the equal of George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” reference in his 2002 address, nor Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 “war on poverty,” nor Franklin Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” on the eve of war.

The one thing that stood out in the 2009 Obama address – the promise to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, which stood in sharp contrast to the practices of the previous Bush administration – still hasn’t happened.

Coming at the start of Mr. Obama’s second term in office, this week’s State of the Union address signals his bell lap, a final race against time when presidents are said to establish their legacy. But Mr. Obama will just be out of the blocks when he must hurdle the first of three more financial obstacles before he can really get moving.

On March 1, unless he and Congress reach some arrangement, a “sequestration” will go into effect, slashing spending in several federal programs and departments including the military.

Though some wags suggest it would be good to let the financial chips fall where they may, the concern is that such a development would jeopardize economic recovery and mean the loss of a million jobs in the defence industry.

Mr. Obama cannot simply pass on tackling this obstacle, Brookings Institution political theorist William Galston told Newsweek this week. “He will be condemned to an unimportant small-ball second term if he doesn’t take this on,” said Mr. Galston.

Once that hurdle is overcome, however, there still remains a threat of a government shutdown on March 27, and another debt-ceiling deadline on May 19, each which will require Mr. Obama to spend yet more political capital to negotiate a compromise with the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

When that is done, Mr. Obama will have about one year to achieve his legacy. After that it will be the Congressional midterm elections, following which Mr. Obama will be considered a lame duck.

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