Obama's State of the Union, and reaction to it, reflect cold partisan reality

  • 29 January 2014
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President Obama delivers his fifth State of the Union address on January 28. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption President Obama delivered a 'minimalist' State of the Union address

On a snowy Tuesday night in Washington, President Barack Obama's fifth State of the Union address reflected the chilly reality of US politics in 2014.

With a midterm congressional election looming in the fall and Republicans firmly in control of the House of Representatives and having the ability to block or delay legislation in the Senate, the outlook for any sweeping new proposals is gloomy.

"Gone is the audacity of hope," writes the BBC's Katy Kay. "This State of the Union address didn't promise big changes on anything - there was no transformation on offer here. This was Mr Obama in realist mode with a workmanlike State of the Union address."

Without major new programmes on offer, discussion among commentators turned to the lack of major programmes.

"The address was an implicit acknowledgment that his once-grand legislative ambitions are over," writes Dana Milbank of the Washington Post. "This approach is, by definition, limited in scope (it doesn't change laws) and temporary (the next president can undo Obama's executive orders with a stroke of the pen, just as Obama undid many of George W. Bush's orders)."

National Journal's Ron Fournier asks: "Is that all there is?"

He continues: "It was a good speech about a modest agenda delivered by a diminished leader, a man who famously promised to reject the politics of 'small things' and aim big - to change the culture of Washington, to restore the public's faith in government, and to tackle enduring national problems with bold solutions."

Washington Monthly's Ed Kilgore called the speech "a minimalist version of one of those second-term Clinton [addresses] that covered a lot of ground and conveyed the sense that the president was snapping his fingers impatiently at the louts sitting down there on the other side of the aisle."

Kilgore's line reveals the quandary facing Mr Obama's supporters. What do you do when partisan opposition prevents any hope of legislative achievement? Blame conservatives in Congress, for one.

"For some time now, the Republican House has made it clear that they have no intention of governing," writes New York Times columnist Timothy Egan. "They shut down the government for 16 days, in case you didn't get the point. And on Tuesday, they seemed more interested in having their pictures taken with the Duck Dynasty guy than finding middle ground with the American majority."

Although pointing fingers at Congress may be comforting, Mr Obama and his supporters have been doing that ever since Republicans swept to power in the House in 2010. Talking Points Memo's Joshua Marshall writes approvingly that it seems Mr Obama has decided to stop trying to look toward Republicans for co-operation.

"Gone from the speech was what I'd heard in pretty much every other Obama State of the Union, pressing bipartisan cooperation, finding common ground, pushing points of agreement," he writes. "There wasn't a contrary note. It was more just ignoring the whole thing, as though the President were saying, 'Okay, guys, I get it. You won't do anything. Okay. Fine.'"

That's not enough for Politico's Roger Simon, who writes: "President Barack Obama couldn't give a bad speech if he tried, but he did his best Tuesday night."

Simon contends that Mr Obama's speech was too soft, when harsh words and a "fighting spirit" were required.

"Obama needed to tell us how he was going to pick up Congress by the scruff of its neck and shake some action out of it," he writes. "I had hoped for a tougher Obama. I had hoped for an Obama who was weary of his open hand being smacked away time and again by the closed fists of Republicans in the House."

Commentators on the right also noted Mr Obama's milder tone, calling it evidence that Mr Obama's ability to exert influence in Washington is waning.

"The press had been prepped to believe the president would come out swinging tonight, defying Congress and vowing to seize the reins of government into his own hands," writes Commentary's Jonathan S Tobin. "But what the country heard instead was confirmation of what many had already suspected after a disastrous 2013 for the president: he has passed over the historic bridge from celebrated re-election to the status of an irrelevant lame-duck."

The National Review's Jonah Goldberg agrees: "My general impression was this was a remarkably boring speech, intellectually and rhetorically. Not every idea was terrible. But no idea was particularly exciting, or all that significant. Because it lacked ambition, it was a far less offensive speech that I thought it would be."

Daily Caller's White House Correspondent Neil Munro writes that the heart of the problem is that at this point in his term, the problems the US is facing are of the president's own making.

"President Barack Obama is offering himself as the miracle cure for his own failed policies, even though his polls remain at dangerously low levels, the economy has stalled, and the public's 2008 hopes have changed into near-80 percent pessimism," he writes.

The emotional peak of Mr Obama's speech came near the end, when he recounted the story of Cory Remsburg, a US soldier who was gravely injured during his 10th tour of duty in Afghanistan. The veteran received one of the longest standing ovations in State of the Union history.

Blogger Andrew Sullivan writes that Mr Obama used Mr Remsburg's story to maximum effect: "The metaphor of the soldier slowly, relentlessly, grindingly putting his life back together was a powerful one for America - and Obama pulled off that analogy with what seemed to me like real passion."

Not everyone was happy with the episode, however.

"There is no more serious decision that a government makes than to send its citizens a war," writes Nick Gillespie for Time magazine. "And there is nothing more disturbing than a president using soldiers' sacrifices as a way of selling a grab-bag of domestic policy agenda items."

As with any major political event, it's worth noting that the intended audience wasn't the pundits in Washington, it was the American people. Countless polls will be taken over the coming days and weeks to see what effect Mr Obama's words had on public opinion and what it could portend for the elections in November.

If the results of a focus group of 44 Denver residents conducted by Democracy Corp is any indication, the president's message may have resonated. According to a memo by Stan Greenberg, James Carville, Erica Seifert and Scott Tiell accompanying the survey's results:

There is much here to commend the President's performance. He made major gains on having good plans for the economy, looking out for the middle class, and looking out for the interest of women. And in focus groups following the speech, voters gave him high marks on his push for paycheck fairness, minimum wage, education, student loans, and job training. Even Republicans in our audience responded positively to Obama's plan for paycheck fairness.

The Washington Examiner's Byron York contends that Republicans ignore findings like these at their own peril:

"The bottom line is that the group in Colorado - swing voters in a swing state - responded much more positively to the substance of Obama's speech than the horde of lawmakers, aides, tweeters and talkers in Washington," he writes. "That is something Republicans in particular should note as they shape their agenda for 2014 and campaign in the months before this November's elections."

With his Tuesday night speech, Mr Obama didn't re-invent the State of the Union address, as some had hoped. He appears content to play the hand he's been dealt, as both sides manoeuvre to turn winter gloom into fall glory.

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