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The Globe and Mail

State of the Union: Why expectations are anything but great

Seen from the Rose Garden, President Barack Obama works at his desk in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Jan. 27, 2014, ahead of Tuesday night's State of the Union speech.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

President Barack Obama insists 2014 will be a "year of action." In Washington, eyes rolled and lips twisted into derisive smirks at the statement. The U.S. capital is known for a lot of things, but at this juncture in history, "action" is not one of them.

The White House insists the cynics are wrong. The President "has a phone and he has a pen" and he intends to use them, senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer told Bloomberg News last week.

Missing from Mr. Pfeiffer's list of political weaponry was what the world has come to know as Mr. Obama's weapon of choice: the Teleprompter.

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Everyone in Washington agrees that the President gives a good speech. But with an approval rating of less than 50 per cent, there is also broad agreement that the country is starting to tune out its president. That reality is playing a role in shaping Tuesday's State of the Union address: A highly anticipated date on the American political calendar is much less so this year.

There will be pomp and circumstance – tradition demands it. But television viewership is trending down: About 22 per cent of U.S. households with televisions were tuned to last year's speech at any given moment, the lowest scored in 20 years of data, according to The Wall Street Journal. The White House is doing little to stoke interest in Mr. Obama's annual address to a joint sitting of Congress. There is no buzz about grand statements or sweeping gestures. The early reports suggest Mr. Obama will talk about "concrete" things he can do on his own. Because of the U.S.'s division of powers, those things necessarily will be small.

Still, the speech, or SOTU as it is typed in Washington, shouldn't be ignored – and it won't be. Television ratings have slid, but still some 30 million Americans will watch. And even if Mr. Obama avoids grand announcements, his approach will say a lot about the state of U.S. politics in 2014, which will culminate with midterm elections in November.

So the SOTU matters.

All eyes on November

The midterm elections may not be everything in Washington this far in advance of voting day, but they are almost everything.

Politically, a second-term president has two things to worry about: the electoral prospects of his party and completing his legacy. If not for the former, Mr. Obama could be tempted to use the SOTU to get to work on the latter. He could extend olive branches to Republicans that his Democratic followers may not want him to extend; he could pursue goals that are important to him personally but could make it difficult for Democratic lawmakers to get re-elected in conservative districts.

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The midterms are shaping up to be just a little too close for Mr. Obama to take big political risks with the SOTU. The House of Representatives should remain in Republican control, but the Senate is in play. Democratic senators will be defending seven seats in states won by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to retake the majority in the Senate.

That gives Mr. Obama reason to take his role as de facto leader of the Democratic Party seriously. Republican control of both sides of Congress would make burnishing his legacy rather difficult.


Republican leadership is more co-operative lately. That's partly because the public blames Republicans for last year's government shutdown and partly because the party's leaders see an avenue to victory: the broad anger engendered by the botched introduction of Mr. Obama's 2010 health-care overhaul. "Republicans will be focusing on it 24/7," said Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, where she studies polling and public opinion.

In 2012, Mr. Obama embraced "Obamacare," the derisive term Republicans created to make sure the public wouldn't forget who was responsible for upending its health coverage. Mr. Obama will have to confront Republican criticism of his signature domestic policy again in the SOTU.

He likely will point to recent data that show about three million Americans who didn't previously have health insurance now do, evidence that the system of web-based marketplaces is finally working. He will have to muster all his oratorical gifts to make voters forget about the system's multiple early failures, however. "It is hard to erase first impressions," Ms. Bowman said.

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Inequality – or whatever you want to call it

Mr. Obama says it's a "defining" issue. He just isn't quite sure how to talk about it.

The issue is income inequality. The paycheques of the richest 1 per cent grew more than 30 per cent between 2009 and 2012, while the incomes of everyone else were essentially stagnant. "But I can tell you that I will measure myself at the end of my presidency in large part by whether I began the process of rebuilding the middle class and the ladders into the middle class, and reversing the trend toward economic bifurcation in this society," Mr. Obama told The New Yorker in a profile the magazine published last week.

The Democratic base loves this theme. It has no problem sticking it to the rich. Polls show the broader public views things a little differently. While there is support for policies that help the middle class, Americans generally are less antagonistic toward the wealthy than are Democratic militants. News reports say there is a feeling in the White House that the emphasis on "inequality" makes it sound like the President will go after a group that most American aspire to join, even if their chances of ever doing so have rarely been worse.

Watch for Mr. Obama to talk about creating "opportunity" for the middle class. If he makes a surprise policy announcement, it could be on this theme. Otherwise, he no doubt will resume his push for an extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, a higher national minimum wage and money for job-creating infrastructure spending.


The wild card in the SOTU is an overhaul of America's immigration rules. The Democratic majority in the Senate passed a comprehensive bill that would open a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented workers. Mr. Obama very much wants to be the president who resolves the issue. "That would be a huge accomplishment," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Monday.

There is broad agreement that change is coming. The question is when. House Speaker John Boehner said he opposes the Senate's omnibus bill but would be open to fixing immigration issues one at a time. That was a breakthrough, and reports indicate that Republicans will debate a strategy on immigration policy at a caucus retreat this week. Mr. Obama could find that a group of people that has long frustrated him could be ready to do a deal.

But would the rest of the Democratic Party be keen to bargain? Being able to characterize Republicans as anti-immigrant would be a big advantage ahead of the midterms. Mr. Obama on Tuesday could signal whether he intends 2014 to be a year of action on this issue or another year of hyper-partisan politics.

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