Obama’s Lame Duck State Of The Union
President Obama's final State Of The Union Address was largely a recognition of the fact that his time on the world stage is quickly coming to an end.
To a large degree, State of the Union Addresses have become an utterly predictable, and therefore by and large ad utterly pointless affair that add little to the actual substance of American politics. Early in a President’s time in office, of course, they are used to set a policy agenda and typically followed up by media barnstorming by Administration spokespersons and appearances around the country by a President trying to get whatever legislation they prefer through Congress, something that in recent years has become less and less likely unless the President’s party has control of both chambers of Congress and not necessarily guaranteed then. When the time for re-election rolls around, the speech is geared more toward setting the agenda for re-election rather than actual legislature accomplishment, which arguably means that these speeches have a tendency to be more important than those earlier in a term given Congressional gridlock. Once a President is in their second term, though, the State of the Union tends to become less important as a policy tool and more reflective, especially as Presidents come to realize that they have, in fact, become the lame duck that every President is doomed to become.
It takes some Presidents longer to realize this lame duck status than others, though. Last year’s State of the Union, for example, was widely perceived as one in which President Obama attempted to justify his own continuing relevance in a Washington that was already starting to look ahead to the 2016 elections. This time around, the speech — which you can read or watch for yourself if, like me, you skipped the speech and the fawning, utterly pointless media coverage both before and after it began — was more of a look back by a President who appears ready to take a year-long victory lap and a call to a future that, by and large, this President will not be a part of. What was missing was any real policy plan outside of an obvious effort by the Administration to weigh in on the issues that are likely to shape the 2016 Presidential race but over which the President himself will have any real influence. Indeed, most of the press coverage of the speech emphasized the extent to which the President sought to confront the fears that have gripped American politics throughout his Presidency.
The New York Times, for example, described the speech as an effort to confront the political divisions that have only seemed to become worse throughout the President’s tenure:
WASHINGTON — President Obama on Tuesday set forth an ambitious vision for America’s future but conceded his own failure to heal the political divisions holding back progress, calling it a lasting disappointment of his tenure.
In a prime-time televised speech that avoided the usual litany of policy prescriptions, Mr. Obama used his final State of the Union address to paint a hopeful portrait of the nation after seven years of his leadership, with a resurgent economy and better standing in the world despite inequality at home and terrorism abroad.
But Mr. Obama, who campaigned for president on promises of hope and change, and vowed when he took office to transform Washington and politics itself, accepted responsibility for falling far short of that goal.
“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency, that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” Mr. Obama said, adding that “a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide.”
He acknowledged that many Americans feel frightened and shut out of a political and economic system they view as rigged against their interests, even as he offered an implicit rebuke of Republicans who are playing on those insecurities in the race to succeed him.
“As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background,” Mr. Obama said. “We can’t afford to go down that path.”
He repeatedly sought to contrast Republicans’ bleak appraisals of the state of the nation with his own upbeat assessment. He called his opponents’ version “a fiction” and defended his decisions, many of them flash points for the partisan divide. Mr. Obama implicitly singled out Donald J. Trump, the leading Republican presidential candidate, for pointed criticism, saying that Americans must resist calls to stigmatize all Muslims at a time of threats from the Islamic State.
“Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people?” Mr. Obama said. “Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for, and the incredible things we can do together?”
He also made an indirect but derisive reference to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, another Republican presidential contender who has criticized Mr. Obama’s foreign policy and urged him to “carpet bomb” the Islamic State.
“The world will look to us to help solve these problems,” Mr. Obama said of global challenges, “and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians.”
The speech, a mix of Mr. Obama’s often lofty rhetoric and punchy, colloquial language, drew more scattered applause than in earlier years. The president appeared liberated by his decision not to present the usual menu of legislative proposals, although it lasted an hour and four minutes, longer than some past addresses. Mr. Obama spoke informally at times, and with occasional flashes of humor.
“Now I’m guessing we won’t agree on health care anytime soon,” he said at one point, as the sound of a single person clapping on the Republican side could be heard in the chamber. Mr. Obama smiled. “A little applause back there,” he said wryly.
Mr. Obama opted for symbolism to make some of his points, leaving a chair empty in the first lady’s guest box to symbolize the victims of gun violence. The other seats were filled by an array of guests including a Syrian refugee. Among the guests invited by Republican lawmakers was Kim Davis, the Kentucky court clerk who became a folk hero to social conservatives for refusing to sign marriage certificates for same-sex couples.
In his remarks, Mr. Obama said America should harness innovation and not be intimidated by it. He called for a “moonshot” effort to cure cancer, to be led by Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., who lost his son to the disease last year.
The address before a joint session of Congress departed from Mr. Obama’s past practice of outlining executive actions intended to sidestep gridlock in Washington.
Instead, Mr. Obama sought to pose and answer the four central questions his aides said were driving the debate about America’s future, including how to ensure opportunity for everyone, how to harness technological change, how to keep the country safe, and how to fix the nation’s broken politics.
He called for an end to gerrymandering — the gaming of political districts to ensure one party’s advantage — reducing the influence of secretive campaign contributions and making voting easier. Mr. Obama also called on Americans to get more involved in politics and participate, a theme of his first campaign and of his presidency.
The speech was one of Mr. Obama’s few remaining opportunities to shape the public conversation before the nation’s attention shifts to the campaign to replace him that is already underway. Except for a final address at the Democratic convention this summer, Tuesday night might have been Mr. Obama’s last big speech.
“I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa — I’ve been there,” he said at the start, acknowledging that the political focus is on the state, which holds the country’s first nominating caucuses.
Mr. Obama was determined that the address be forward-looking, aides said, even as his time remaining in the White House is limited. The president called for compromise with Republicans on an overhaul of the criminal justice system, approval of a broad free-trade agreement spanning the Pacific Rim and new initiatives to address poverty and the opioid crisis in the United States. He proposed to provide jobless workers with retraining in addition to the unemployment payments they already received.
The Washington Post’s coverage struck a similar tone:
President Obama tried to use his final State of the Union address Tuesday to calm Americans’ economic and national security anxieties, tout his record and rebuke Republican presidential hopefuls for the vitriolic tone of their campaigns to replace him.
“And then, as frustration [with politics] grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into our respective tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background,” Obama said, in one of many not-so-subtle references to GOP front-runner Donald Trump. “We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want or the security we want, but most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world.”
The president — his hair now flecked with gray — was greeted with cheers of “O-bama!” from enthusiastic Democrats but mostly stony silence from Republicans. They laughed louder at his allusion to many members’ eagerness to resume campaigning for president in Iowa than at his joke about how even as the United States has cut carbon emissions, “gas under two bucks a gallon ain’t bad, either.”
“We live in a time of extraordinary change — change that’s reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet and our place in the world,” said Obama, standing before Vice President Biden and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan. “It’s change that can broaden opportunity or widen inequality. And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.”
Obama gave passing mention to a handful of policy priorities — including promoting trade, curbing prescription-drug abuse, reforming the criminal-justice system and curing cancer — but he devoted more of the speech to talking to the nation rather than the House and Senate members before him.
History shows that presidents delivering their final State of the Union addresses take the opportunity to frame their time in office and begin to cement their legacies.
Obama said “one of the few regrets” of his presidency was that — after he ran on a message of unity and healing — American politics has become more divided and resentful on his watch.
“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” Obama said. “There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”
Obama offered a sunny assessment of the nation — “clear-eyed,” “big-hearted” and “strong.” At the same time, he acknowledged that the country is in the grip of wrenching and unsettling transitions.
“America has been through big changes before — wars and depression, the influx of immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, and movements to expand civil rights,” Obama said. “Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. And each time, we overcame those fears.”
Without naming them directly, Obama ripped into several of the leading GOP presidential candidates in blunt terms, suggesting that they are stoking similar fears now. In an uncertain world, he said, “our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet-bomb civilians.”
America has earned respect by fostering a tradition of tolerance, he said, before making a veiled reference to Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).
“That’s why we need to reject any politics — any politics,” he repeated for emphasis, “that targets people because of race or religion. Let me say this: This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding just what it is that makes us strong.”
Obama also made the case for his foreign policy approach, calling for an American internationalism built on broad alliances and focused on post-Cold War issues such as trade, combating disease epidemics and limiting climate change as well as fighting terrorism. He said the U.S. mission should be to make the world safe without becoming the world’s policeman.
He said that the United States “can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq — and we should have learned it by now.”
Presidents typically lay out the challenges they see the country facing in their farewell addresses, just before leaving office. But Obama — who was emailing revisions to his speechwriter as late as 3 a.m. Tuesday — chose to do that on Tuesday instead, declaring that many of his goals would be left for future administrations and future generations.
To a large degree, of course, the fact that the President’s speech last night was largely free of ambitious policy proposals was simply a recognition of reality. Even leaving aside the fact that Congress is fully controlled by the opposition party, it’s unlikely that the final year of the 114th Congress would see any major policy initiatives make their way through either the House or the Senate. The history of the past several decades has shown that this final year of the second term of a two-term President is generally not one in which major policy initiatives are likely to see much progress on Capitol Hill. To a large degree, this is because both parties are looking forward to the election and more interested in setting the agenda for that election than using the minimal time they will actually spend in session trying to solve problems. For both parties, it’s generally the case that we’re now at the point where political strategists look at these issues, whether it be immigration, tax reform, or other matters, in terms of how they can be won to rally supporters and attack opponents, which means that there’s much less incentive to actually try to solve these problems than there is to use them as political cudgels in the upcoming election. To a large degree, of course, it has been apparent since the summer that Congress, and the political media have been looking past the Obama years and focusing on the race to succeed him, and this is likely to only increase as the year goes on. The Administration realizes this, of course, and they also clearly realize that a State of the Union filled with policy proposals would have been seen as ‘dead on arrival,’ and only emphasized the extent to which President Obama is already a lame duck.
Notwithstanding that, there were some items missing from the President’s address that came as a surprise. The issues surrounding the gun control debate, for example, are something that the President has spoken about many times during his Presidency, most recently earlier this month when he introduced a series of limited executive actions impacting the background check system. When it was announced prior to the speech that one of the chairs in the President’s box in the House Chamber would be empty in honor of the victims of gun violence. This led many to believe that President Obama would use the speech as an opportunity to address that issue yet again, even if only an abstract way that called for action without asking for anything specific. In the end, though, gun violence got only a brief, perfunctory mention in the speech itself. Similarly, the President didn’t spend much time on various foreign policy crises facing his Administration, all of which are likely to still be active problems when the next President takes office. Perhaps this is because he didn’t want to emphasize the fact that he hasn’t exactly lived up to his promises to leave the world a less dangerous place, but whatever the reason the limited amount of time given to such an importance issue was noticeable even as you read through the text of the speech like I did this morning. Overall, of course, it seems as though this was probably as good a speech as the others the President has delivered, but the overall message seems to be that even he recognizes at this point that the passing of the baton to whomever will succeed him is approaching quickly, and that his time on the stage of world history is coming to an end.
If the President’s speech was largely forgettable, the thankless task of responding to it was handed to South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who seems to have done as good a job as can be expected:
South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley offered a not-so-subtle rebuke of Donald Trump’s fiery immigration rhetoric as part of her response to President Barack Obama’s Tuesday State of the Union speech — winning widespread praise for gracefully taking on the GOP frontrunner.
While a good chunk of her rebuttal covered the usual Republican objections to Obama’s policies, from national security to Obamacare to economic policy, Haley’s response seemed aimed directly at Trump as she tried to distance Republicans from some of his comments without naming him directly.
“Today, we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory. During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” Haley said on Tuesday, adding that she is “the proud daughter of Indian immigrants who reminded my brothers, my sister and me every day how blessed we were to live in this country.”
Trump has rocketed to the top of the polls despite a series of controversial immigration statements, including a call to ban Muslim immigrants from entering the U.S. that’s been criticized by mainstream Republicans. It’s the kind of rhetoric that’s made many Republicans nervous about the future of the party as they strive to diversify.
“We must resist that temptation,” Haley said. “No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”
Republicans chose Haley, a potential 2016 vice presidential running-mate for the GOP nominee, to deliver their message to the public following Obama’s last State of the Union address to Congress, putting her in the spotlight just as veepstates speculation heats up. Some believe she could be the running mate for candidates Chris Christie, Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush, should any of them win the nomination.
And while the GOP rebuttal traditionally blasts the sitting president for his proposed policies, Haley also echoed, at least broadly, some of Obama’s own comments about the risks of fear-mongering. Observers on both sides of the aisle immediately praised Haley for her poised delivery and nuanced message.
“Great job @nikkihaley ! Fantastic balance and substance. Our party is the new, young and diverse party,” tweeted RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.
Haley made headlines this summer for backing an effort to remove the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds following the racially-motivated massacre of several blacks in an African American church. Since then, she’s only risen in prominence.
She brought up the tragedy in her speech Tuesday, citing her state’s reaction to the shooting as an example of how to react to a tough and ugly situation.
“We didn’t have violence, we had vigils. We didn’t have riots, we had hugs. We didn’t turn against each other’s race or religion; we turned toward God,” she said. “We removed a symbol that was being used to divide us, and we found a strength that united us against a domestic terrorist and the hate that filled him.”
She continued, again seeming to hit at Trump for his reactionary responses to difficult predicaments: “There’s a tendency to falsely equate noise with results. Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume.”
Based on the coverage I’ve seen, Haley’s response seems to have been largely well-received, and this is likely to enhance the talk of her as a possible running mate for whomever wins the Republican nomination. The fact that a good part of her speech was an explicit rebuke of Donald Trump, though, is interesting for more immediate reasons given the fact that Haley has yet to endorse a candidate in the upcoming South Carolina Republican Primary. While Haley has not made clear whether she will actually make an endorsement, the fact that she chose to use the response to a State of the Union to attack the rhetoric of the Republican frontrunner without naming him suggests that she’s at least thinking about doing so, and that the endorsement is likely to go to someone who’s able to take on Trump directly. Given Haley’s popularity in the Palmetto State, especially among Republican voters, this is an endorsement worth paying attention to if it comes since it could give one of the challengers to Trump some momentum heading into a very important primary.