Blog No. 59. The State of the Union Address: Barack Obama’s Parallel Universe and the Challenge for Republicans

On the day of the President’s State of the Union address, a writer in The Washington Post was moved to wonder “Do we even need a State of the Union address anymore?” It is unlikely that the writer’s doubts were assuaged by the President’s performance that evening. The President assured us on the one hand that everything was really quite splendid both at home and abroad, but also insisted that our domestic tranquility requires a lengthy and expensive set of initiatives. Indeed, listening to the address, one had the feeling that it might have been titled “No Proposal Left Behind.” In fact, however, the President declined to renew many of the proposals that he had presented a year ago and which had been largely ignored by the 113th Congress. (A PBS NewsHour analysis indicated that out of 18 proposals urged in 2014, only 2 rather minor ones had been adopted.) Now that Republicans control the Senate as well as the House, and enjoy an even larger majority in the House, the President’s prospects for legislative achievements are hardly brighter.

In fact, one area in which the President may find Congressional support is approval of trade agreements with Europe and Pacific Rim countries. Those, of course, are matters in which the President finds more sympathy from Republicans than from members of his own party. (See Blog No. 35 “Free Trade Agreements: Good Policy—and Good Politics for Republicans”) Indeed, he has reason to be grateful for Republican control of the Senate because it removed from the leadership a figure, Harry Reid, who was a major obstacle to approval of trade treaties.

If there is little chance of the President’s proposals being adopted, what was it all about? Observers were virtually unanimous in concluding that he was seeking to “shape the debate” over the next two years, leading up to the 2016 election. For example, The New York Times admitted that the President’s ambitious schemes for tax increases and income redistribution have a “less than zero” chance of passage, but went on to write:

By simply raising the plight of the middle class (and, looming behind it, the larger issue of economic inequality), he has firmly inserted issues of economic fairness into the political debate. Hillary Rodham Clinton or whomever the Democrats nominate cannot ignore them now. Even Republicans, disinclined to raise taxes on top-tier earners, may find attractive the idea of doing something for those in the middle.

One wonders where the Times has been. Issues of economic fairness have not only been a Democratic staple for as long as we can remember, but in recent years such issues have been increasingly a focus of Republicans. (See, e.g, Blog 19 “Senator Lee v. Scrooge McDuck” and Blog 26 “Poverty and Marriage”). Indeed, an op-ed piece in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Obama’s Middle-Class Blind Spotpoints out that, unlike a Republican proposal by Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio, the President’s plan for tax credits for parents discriminates against families where one parent remains at home to provide child care. The Times’s reference to Hillary Clinton, however, was worth noting. Although Ms. Clinton would surely have spoken about economic fairness without prompting, she may now feel pressure (from Elizabeth Warren among others) not only to endorse the Obama proposal but to find a way of going it one better.

If the President’s approach to domestic matters was somewhat detached from reality, it was in the area of foreign relations that he stepped into a parallel universe. The President devoted but a single paragraph to ISIL. As the President would have it, we are stopping ISIL in Iraq and Syria and are leading a broad coalition “to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.” While there has been some success in Iraq in halting ISIL, there is little evidence of it being degraded, and in Syria the situation is even more bleak. The President noted that “We’re also supporting moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort.” What he omitted to say was that the moderate opposition are few and far between (described by one military leader quoted on NBC as “a unicorn”) and that we are not merely looking for their help, but counting on them as the only ground force to oppose ISIL, the other extremist forces in Syria and the Assad regime.

As is his wont, the President made no mention of radical Islam or Islamic extremism, or in this case, even al Qaeda. The horrific events in Paris drew only a glancing and cryptic reference and he made no mention at all of Yemen, recently cited as a model and now on the apparent brink of collapse. Afghanistan was cited as as completed success although, with a resurgent Taliban and a residual American force that is little more than a token, its posture is tenuous at best. Stunned criticism of the President’s portrayals was not limited to Senator McCain (“delusional”) and other Republicans. Andrea Mitchell, speaking from the Obama-friendly confines of MSNBC, called Obama’s claim of progress “really hard to fathom.” On NBC, NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel said “It sounded like the President was outlining a world that he wishes we were all living in but is very different from the world that [Anchor Brian Williams] just described.” Dana Milbank, writing in The Washington Post suggested that history may describe Obama’s address, with its nonchalant approach to Muslim extremists, “While America Slept.”

Turning to Russia, the President was hardly more realistic. Looking through roseate lenses, he put it this way: “We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies.” What he omitted saying is that Russia did indeed bully the small: Crimea is now a part of Russia and will likely remain so for a very long time and Russia and the rebels it supports remain entrenched in Eastern Ukraine. Obama claimed a victory of sorts over Vladimir Putin by having imposed sanctions and the fact that the Russian economy is “in tatters.” The Russian economy is experiencing great difficulty, but the effect of the sanctions is probably less than the global collapse of oil prices. In any case, there is no sign that either the difficulties or the sanctions are likely to force Russia to yield its ill-gotten gains or relinquish its grip on Ukraine. Finally, we did issue words of reassurance to our NATO allies, but given our diminished defense capability, it is doubtful how reassured any of them feel.

To the extent that Republicans in Congress seem interested in attempting to assert leadership in foreign affairs, they seem particularly focused on the negotiations with Iran and, in particular, a bipartisan bill, sponsored by Senator Robert Menendez and Mark Kirk, that would impose additional sanctions on Iran if an agreement is not reached by the agreed deadline of June 30. This is an issue on which we have mixed feelings and no firm position. On the one hand we do not understand why such a bill, conditional in effect, would have the destructive effect on negotiations that the President claims. On the other hand we are doubtful that the prospect of such automatic sanctions will force Iran to make concessions at the bargaining table. In any case, the administration’s position does not appear to be so divorced from reality as it is in the case of ISIL and Russia. Moreover, the June 30 deadline is not that far away and is not likely to be extended further. Accordingly, we would be inclined to give the Administration the deference it is traditionally accorded in such matters.

The Republican response to the President’s address was given by Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, and its principal virtues were brevity and the offering of a fresh face. Making the response to the President’s SOTU message is not an easy task. There is no pomp, no ceremony and not much time. Senator Ernst did a capable job, avoiding the pitfalls of some of her predecessors, but her presentation is not likely to be long-remembered.

While Senator Ernst offered no substantive proposals on foreign policy, she did refer to “threats posed by Al Qaeda, ISIL and those radicalized by them” and observed that “We know threats like these can’t just be wished away. We’ve been reminded of terrorism’s reach both at home and abroad, most recently in France and Nigeria but also in places like Canada and Australia.” She also referred, briefly but usefully, of the need to develop a “comprehensive plan” to meet such threats.

Domestically, the challenge for Republicans—as they have been reminding themselves for several weeks—is to demonstrate that they are capable of more than simply opposing the President but are capable of finding and legislating solutions. Senator Ernst gave a few positive hints along that line, but was not in a position to offer any solid evidence.

Senator Ernst mentioned trade bills and tax reform as possible areas of bipartisan cooperation. On the other hand, she referred to the unlikely goal of repealing Obama care and made no mention of immigration. On the latter front, the best news lately was the floating of a possible Plan B for opposition to the Obama Executive Order: As described in Politico, “Republicans could pass a new bill to beef up security at the U.S.-Mexico border. They could sue to overturn Obama’s unilateral protections for millions of undocumented immigrants.” That strikes us as a constructive solution: it is unlikely to accomplish much but it will at least do no harm such as shutting down the Department of Homeland Security or any other agency of the government.

2 thoughts on “Blog No. 59. The State of the Union Address: Barack Obama’s Parallel Universe and the Challenge for Republicans

  • Hi Doug,

    Thanks once again for your comprehensive report, this time on the state of the Union.

    I simply could not stomach watching this time which may be true of many other folks. That is not a good excuse however, so your information is valuable to me in order to catch up, well done.

  • Maybe the Republicans in Congress should take the lead from Senator Ernst and put plastic bags on their leaking leadership skills. They will do nothing constructive because they do not want to do anything constructive and until a front runner emerges for 2016 they will continue to fight each other. and probably even after that. I think suing the President to overturn executive orders will be a boon to the Democrats and show the American people again that they excel as the party of NO. What they ought to do but will not do is come up with an immigration reform bill that works. That would be a positive step and would change the direction of the debate but they are not capable of doing anything that would even appear to be constructive. It is possible that in the future GOP will come to stand for Gerrymanderd (sic) Old Party.

    As an aside there was a report today that Senator Ernst’s family had received over $350,000 is Farm subsidies over the years. You can buy a lot of plastic bags with that kind of money, maybe even a pair of shoes for a little girl on her way to castrate a pig. If she is the best they can do in response ,control of Congress or not, they are on hard times.

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