COMMENTARY
9:48 am
Wed January 29, 2014

Obama's Subtle SOTU Intent: Put Congress In Its Place

President Obama delivered his State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday night.
Credit Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Landov

President Obama’s fifth State of the Union speech wasn’t his best, but it may have been his most entertaining. Freed from the illusion that Republicans will ever work with him, the president last night was upbeat, funny and slashingly partisan.

He paid tribute to House Speaker John Boehner as “the son of a barkeep,” forcing a pained smile and upraised thumb from his longtime nemesis. He rambled about the glories of Obamacare so that Republicans could be seen sitting on their hands for as long as possible. And, in my favorite moment, he pulled a rhetorical switcheroo that put Republicans in the position of having to applaud gay people if they also wanted to be seen paying tribute to our Olympic athletes.

It was an interesting gambit. A way for a president whose poll numbers have fallen to show dominance over a group of people who are even less popular than he is.

“We believe in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation,” Obama said. “And next week the world will see one expression of that commitment when Team USA marches the red, white and blue into the Olympic stadium and brings home the gold.” USA! USA!

It was an interesting gambit — a way for a president whose poll numbers have fallen to show dominance over a group of people who are even less popular than he is. According to the most recent ABC News/Washington Post survey, 49 percent of the public hold a favorable view of Obama and 50 percent hold an unfavorable view — down from the 60-37 spread he enjoyed about this time a year ago. But an ABC/Post poll also found recently that 71 percent of Americans disapprove of how congressional Republicans are doing their jobs, compared to just 25 percent who approve. (Congressional Democrats do only slightly better, but they were not Obama’s target Tuesday night.)

The pundit class, both liberal and conservative, took note of Obama’s loose mood.

“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,” wrote Josh Marshall, editor of the left-leaning Talking Points Memo. “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.’ Basically, let’s not play that charade anymore.”

Observing the same phenomenon through the other end of the ideological prism was Rich Lowry of the conservative National Review, who put it this way: “If this is the imperial presidency, it wasn’t a very imperial speech. It was small in every way. It wasn’t eloquent and didn’t even seem to try. Instead it was conversational, including a joke about calling your mother.” Added Ron Fournier of the nonpartisan National Journal: “Is that all there is? ... It was a good speech about a modest agenda delivered by a diminished leader.”

On the more substantive elements of the State of the Union, media reaction focused mainly on the president’s determination to work around congressional gridlock through the use of executive orders to raise the wages of employees who work for federal contractors and to combat climate change, among other things. On this front there is some confusion. Is it no big deal given that Obama has actually used such orders far less frequently than his predecessors, as Dan Amira of New York magazine has noted? Or has he exceeded his authority by taking bold actions such as rewriting parts of the Affordable Care Act without the necessary congressional approval, as conservatives such as Charles Krauthammer argue?

Leave it to Wall Street Journal columnist Ted Cruz — wait, that Ted Cruz? — to offer a distinctly nuance-free perspective. “Of all the troubling aspects of the Obama presidency,” he wrote, “none is more dangerous than the president’s persistent pattern of lawlessness, his willingness to disregard the written law and instead enforce his own policies via executive fiat.” Expect to hear a lot of that in the days and weeks ahead.

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the State of the Union was Obama’s near-silence on gun violence, a year after he tried and failed to push Congress into acting following the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. “Obama devoted a whole 67 words to gun control, offering no specifics in a speech that was stuffed with specifics on other issues,” complained Roger Simon of Politico.

And without question, the most memorable and emotional part of the evening came toward the end, when the president acknowledged Army Ranger Cory Remsburg, recovering from grievous injuries suffered in Afghanistan during his 10th deployment, as described by Ernesto Londoño of the Washington Post. We’ll remember that long after Obama’s words are forgotten.

The immediate reaction to the speech was favorable. According to a CNN/ORC snap poll, 76 percent had either a “very positive” or “somewhat positive” reaction to the State of the Union, and the president got a 17 percent bump — from 52 percent before the speech to 69 percent after — in terms of whether his policies would move the country in the right direction.

But such findings tend to be ephemeral at best. If we know one thing about the Obama era, it’s that the president can give a good speech and that it rarely makes a difference in his ability to move congressional Republicans.

“A man who entered the White House yearning for sweeping achievements finds himself five years later threatening an end run around gridlock on Capitol Hill by using executive orders, essentially acknowledging both the limits of his ability to push an agenda through Congress and the likelihood that future accomplishments would be narrow,” wrote Carl Hulse of the New York Times.

On Twitter, John Robinson, former editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina, put it much more succinctly: “Interesting that on the morning network news, the SOTU isn’t the lead story of the day.”

Dan Kennedy is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a panelist on WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press.” He is the author of the blog Media Nation.

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