What to watch for in Barack Obama's SOTU address

With three years left to go, the president's job is to dream big and think small

(Charles Dharapak, AP Photo)

Like all re-elected presidents of the United States, Barack Obama is having a difficult second term. In Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, with three years left to go and no possibility of new legislative accomplishments, his job is to dream big and think small: second-term presidents focus either on big things that they have no chance of getting through Congress, or small things that fit in with the overall theme and direction they want to set for the country.

Obama is expected to place special emphasis on small things that he, as president, can do without Congress. Facing a Republican House that is even more conservative than the one that impeached Clinton, and with a very strong possibility of a Republican takeover of the Senate this fall, Obama will become an even bigger fan of unilateral action than he already is. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, one of the themes of his speech will be his “assertive new direction,” his attempt to prove he is not a lame-duck president and can do things on his own. The Washington Post outlined some of his plans for 2014, which mostly involve ignoring Congress and figuring out ways to ignore them more effectively, but in a State of the Union address before both Houses, he can’t directly say they’re useless and he’s going to stop paying attention to them. So the idea will be to challenge Congress to act on issues like immigration, the minimum wage, and the environment, and to hint if they won’t take action, he’ll figure out how to do it without them. The ever-increasing range of executive powers asserted on a bipartisan basis – first by George W. Bush and then by Obama – might be a sort of hidden theme of the speech, the undercurrent of his arguments; executive power isn’t just useful for bombing and spying on people anymore, but for everything.

In terms of what Obama needs to deal with to turn his presidency around, everything — even health care — takes a back seat to the economy and the overall sense that things have not improved for anyone except those at the top. Obama in a way has been hit on this issue from both sides, with the 1 per cent blaming him for the increasing hatred directed against them, while the 99 per cent blame him for not doing enough to improve their lot. The idea that he can do something to improve people’s lives is behind one of the concrete items he is expected to mention, which is that the White House is asking corporations to sign a pledge not to discriminate against the long-term unemployed. The problem of long-term unemployment is at the heart of many of the problems in this long economic downturn: people who have been out of work so long that they are simply assumed to be unemployable, and drop out of the workforce permanently. The Obama pledge will send a signal that these people can get work if they try. But the idea of the White House asking corporations to sign a pledge of any kind will undoubtedly be irresistible fodder for conservative media, which will portray this as another example of Obama strong-arming private business.

On income inequality, many people are hoping for Obama to take a stronger line on this increasingly pressing issue, the way he did in a recent speech. But they might be disappointed. Reports indicate that Obama is going to focus on one of his favourite vague phrases, “ladders of opportunity,” rather than inequality. Of course both are different ways of talking about the same thing, but the focus on “opportunity” shows Obama’s eagerness to co-opt conservative memes for liberal ends: “opportunity” has been a traditional conservative talking point because it shifts the emphasis away from redistribution. Obama appears uncomfortable with accusations that he is a class warrior, perhaps because he isn’t naturally that sort of pugnacious President, the type who can “welcome their hatred” the way Franklin Roosevelt did with his rich critics. But if he doesn’t hit the income inequality theme hard, and instead sticks to the blander and safer territory of advocating a hand for the poor without criticizing the rich, he might alienate liberals. Worse, he might alienate a certain segment of swing voter, the type of people who aren’t too fond of letting their tax money go to help poor people, but are happy to hear the upper classes criticized for nearly destroying the world. Obama has a habit of trying to steer a middle course that pleases nobody.

And then there’s health care, which is going to be the elephant in the room (though that metaphor doesn’t work in a room that is big enough to hold many elephants). There hasn’t been a lot of advance warning as to what Obama will say about health care, perhaps because it’s out of his hands to some extent: his people have done most of what they can do in mitigating the damage from the disastrous website rollout, and now his main goal is simply to hope the plan holds together long enough for people to get used to it. Republicans, for their part, are worried people will get used to it – or from their point of view, dependent on it – if it lasts long enough. Which may be why a group of Republican Senators is proposing an Obamacare replacement; unless the whole Republican party comes together around an Obamacare alternative, Obama can simply say his opponents have no compelling replacement, and move on.

That may be the biggest reason why there’s not a great deal of urgency surrounding Tuesday night’s address: the fate of Obama’s presidency in a sense won’t be decided until it’s almost over, and it will be decided by the fate of legislation he already passed in his first term. If health-care reform takes root and becomes something that people just live with, like other government programs, then Obama wins; if opposition continues to be high, or if the Republicans get a big enough majority to override Obama’s veto, then he loses. The only other thing he can do is call on businesses to hire more people and pay their employees better; to do more would require him to be the kind of liberal firebrand that he has simply never  been. And that’s why, whatever the state of the union is right now, everyone’s mind is really on what the state of the union will be in 2018 when he leaves office: that’s when people will know how well or badly he was really doing in 2014.