By Walter Shapiro
For Barack Obama, Tuesday’s State of the Union address is the last in a five-month sequence of formal political speeches, delivered in star-spangled settings and broadcast on prime-time television, dating back to the Democratic convention. After the partisan applause in the House chamber dies down Tuesday night, the next time Obama will speak to the nation during the evening will be, in all likelihood, a time of crisis or national grieving.
Obama’s 2012 convention speech was about polls and swing states. His inaugural address was a moment for eloquent symbolism, which he achieved with his unequivocal endorsement of gay rights. A second-term State of the Union address is different: What matters are not the words but the policy.
Obama should answer three questions: Now that the election is over, what do I truly believe? What is the order of my priorities? And what will I not accept from Congress under any circumstance?
Like every White House since the news was delivered by telegraph, the Obama team has been leaking the themes of the speech to the press in order to create the right mood of frenzied anticipation. Over the weekend, the Washington Post (“In State of the Union, Obama to return to jobs and the economy”) and the New York Times (“In Address, President Will Focus on Middle Class”) ran similar stories based on conversations with purportedly press-shy Obama aides ”who discussed the speech on condition of anonymity.”
Few Americans would fault the president’s intent to build his speech around the financial woes of the middle class. (By the way, does anyone in Washington still possess an old-fashioned dictionary in which the word “poverty” is listed in the P’s along with “politics” and “polls”?). Previewing the State of the Union in a speech to House Democrats last week, Obama declared that America needs “an economy in which we’re growing a vibrant middle class—that it grows from the middle out and the bottom up, not from the top down.”
Who could argue with that dream? With 12.3 million Americans unemployed (roughly the population of Pennsylvania), the anemic recovery has created lost generations. Students who left school in 2008—whether with a Ph.D. or a high-school diploma—may never make up the loss in lifetime earnings from the economic collapse. Mature workers who had anticipated maintaining their standard of living until retirement have faced the rude realities of downward mobility: Family incomes for those between 50 and 65 have declined by 10 percent in the past three years.
The challenge for Obama in the State of the Union is the mismatch between the magnitude of the current economic malaise and the resources that he can summon to deal with it.
A $25 billion or even a $50 billion program (these numbers are guesses, not leaks) to rebuild American’s infrastructure or to encourage lifelong learning may sound impressive in the context of Tuesday night’s rhetoric. But a stimulus like that represents chump change in a $15 trillion economy.
Obama would need the persuasive skills of a Bill Clinton and the legislative mastery of a Lyndon Johnson to maneuver even a modest agenda of new federal spending through the Republican-controlled House. Even though not-quoted-by-name Obama aides insist that any new spending would be balanced by corresponding budget cuts, a large segment of Congress (not confined to Republicans) would argue that such savings should be directly applied to the deficit.
President Obama is, in effect, hamstrung by the politics of austerity that he successfully championed as Candidate Obama. It made sense in 2012 electoral terms to talk about a “balanced approach” to deficit reduction and to downplay any need for further economic stimulus. Even last week, in his speech to House Democrats, Obama stressed his desire for “a balanced package that will reduce our long-term deficit and debt.”
The problem is that, without tax reform to raise revenue, it is impossible to simultaneously pay down the deficit and jumpstart the economy through federal programs. Talking about (yes, I do hate the phrase) “a balanced package” obviously polls well for Obama. But to govern is to make choices, and Obama’s roadmap appears to be the route of symbolic gestures and micro-initiatives rather than robust recovery.
The Scrooge McDuck obsession with premature budget cutting compounds the problem for both Obama and the economy. By any rational standard of economic decision-making, it is ludicrous that $85 billion in automatic across-the-board budget cuts are slated to take effect on March 1, slicing everything from FEMA disaster relief to the Navy Seals. Largely because of obstreperous Republicans, Washington is also facing another government shutdown at the end of March when current funding runs out.
A stagnant economy and a dysfunctional Congress are dreary and depressing topics that have been dominating the news since the economic meltdown began on Wall Street in mid-September 2008. No matter how intense the individual suffering from job loss and dashed hopes, there is little that Obama can say on Tuesday night that will spark a visceral response. We have simply been down this road for too long for any presidential utterance on the economy to seem fresh.
That is why—no matter how Obama’s speech is structured—the crusade against gun violence is almost certain to become its emotional heart. Already, congressional Democrats are making certain that grieving relatives and survivors of the Newtown shootings will have VIP seats in the House gallery for the State of the Union. Images of the 20 small children who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School have seared the soul of Obama, a president who rarely shows emotion. And undoubtedly Tuesday night’s speech will reflect those tearful memories.
Yet gun control represents another issue where the president’s stirring words are at odds with the timidity of what is legislatively possible. Already, leading Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have expressed skepticism that an assault weapons ban could make it through Congress.
In a violent nation with more than 300 million guns in circulation, it is difficult to assess how many lives would be saved by preventing the future sales of the most lethal weaponry. As the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service pointed out in a November 2012 report, “Existing data do not show whether the number of people shot and killed with semiautomatic assault weapons declined during the 10-year period (1994-2004) that those firearms were banned from further proliferation in the United States.”
Probably the only gun legislation with a realistic chance of making it through Congress would expand federal background checks to cover private gun shows and other unregulated sales. While any political victory over the zealots of the NRA has merit, it is illusionary to believe that better background checks alone would prevent most future massacres in elementary schools and movie theaters.
From 1998 to 2009 (the data is from the invaluable Congressional Research Service report), fewer than 2 percent of all would-be gun buyers flunked their federal background checks. Most of those banned under federal law were either felons or convicted of domestic abuse. Almost every other adult American – including some who are deranged – can currently buy guns legally and would continue to do so under any legislation that might pass Congress during Obama’s presidency.
As Obama stands before the Congress and the nation Tuesday night—a re-elected leader at the height of his recent popularity—it is worth remembering the limits on presidential power in an era of divided government.
The 44th president may harbor bold dreams and express them in lilting language. But when it comes to legislating, he lives, alas, in an era of incremental gestures and truncated ambitions. The true state of the union in 2013 is stymied.