The reviews for President Obama’s State of the Union address are as expected — the adjectives “small-bore” and “small-ball” need to be retired for the rest of the century — and one New York congressman has learned how dangerous it is to make news right after a boring speech. (See “Grimm Threatens Reporter, Saying, ‘I’ll Break You in Half.’”)
Disappointment comes with the assumption that the State of the Union can sway public opinion (which it almost never does for more than a few days) and put pressure on Congress to do what the president wants. The idea of the president as a bully pulpit superhero (or “Green Lantern”) persists even though the safest course for any congressman of either party seeking re-election is to declare independence from the White House.
But the State of the Union address (see transcript here; see our live tweets here) can be useful in sketching an election-year narrative for the political press. In this case, we’re not talking about 2014, since almost everyone expects the Republicans to keep control of the House of Representatives and the power to bottle up Obama proposals they don’t like. No, the president’s implicit references to the Republican Party as obstructionist, uncaring and even delusional (in the case of climate change) is a softer version of the Democratic presidential campaign of 2016, which most assume will be headed by Hillary Clinton.
Tuesday’s address included a couple of new proposals, but it was much heavier on claims of accomplishment, including the Affordable Care Act (“let’s not have another forty-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans”), the reduction of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and, with a nod toward Michelle Obama, a decline in the childhood obesity rate. It could have easily have been a speech at the 2016 Democratic convention, with Obama thanking supporters as he passes the baton to a new nominee — one who might be lucky enough to serve with a more cooperative Congress, depending what voters decide.
I’m not sure that Obama ever thought, “This one’s for Hillary” as he drafted the speech, but it was received by many as a kind of valedictory. The Wall Street Journal editorialized, “the public has begun to tune the familiar man out … Perhaps that explains the subdued tone of President Obama’s speech.” The New York Times’ Carl Hulse referred to Obama “essentially acknowledging both the limits of his ability to push an agenda through Congress and the likelihood that future accomplishments would be narrow.” The Times’ editorial board was more direct: “Mr. Obama’s speech on Tuesday night acknowledged the obvious: Congress has become a dead end for most of the big, muscular uses of government to redress income inequality and improve the economy for all, because of implacable Republican opposition.”
Early in the speech, Obama took a veiled swipe at congressional Republicans (“when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States, then we are not doing right by the American people”) and he later made the mandatory pitch to self-proclaimed independents by saying, “I know that the American people aren’t interested in refighting old battles.” But the speech does remind me of an old battle: the one between Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2008. There weren’t many ideological differences between the two, but there were many bitter arguments between their supporters. The main objection from Clinton supporters was that Obama was naïve (or maybe brazenly insincere) in promising to move beyond “the same typical politics that we’ve seen in Washington” and in making overtures toward Republicans by saying Ronald Reagan did some good things as president. Clinton supporters argued that she would be a tougher negotiator with conservative Republicans, having tangled with them during her husband’s administration (when she declared the existence of a “vast right-wing conspiracy”). That the Clintons were famous/notorious in Washington for keeping track of their friends and enemies was seen as another reason to believe Hillary would be better at hardball politics.
We’ll never know whether a President Hillary Clinton could have passed something like the Affordable Care Act, or could have done better than Obama at getting action on climate change or immigration reform. But Obama’s increasingly frequent acknowledgments that a post-partisan approach isn’t going to get anything through Congress add up to a “let’s try it Hillary’s way” argument. The idea that Clinton would be able to knock some heads together on Capitol Hill to get her way is more Green Lanternism, but it has the appearance of a fresh approach, so voters wouldn’t think they were being offered a third Obama term.
This is why I’m skeptical that Clinton is going to face a serious challenge for the nomination from the left. Her tough style, real or perceived, will trump any concerns that she’s soft on financial regulation and on fighting poverty. David Corn, at the liberal Mother Jones magazine, panned the State of the Union address, but he seemed most disappointed that the president let his opponents “off the hook,” writing, “Obama didn't use this opportunity to focus on the reason he has to go it alone: Republicans hell-bent on disrupting the government and thwarting all the initiatives he deems necessary for the good of the nation.”
The theme of Republican obstructionism is perfect for Hillary Clinton to mount an “I told you so” campaign in 2016. The biggest danger to this approach is that the Republican Party has plenty of notice and may actually nominate someone who doesn’t fit the narrative of Obama’s State of the Union. I don’t think Clinton is worried by Chris Christie (too confrontational) or Jeb Bush (too much of an admission that there’s no new talent in the GOP). But Paul Ryan may be a different story; his budget proposals have earned him enough conservative cred that he can afford to seem reasonable and conciliatory, making Clinton’s toughness seem like the kind of thing voters want an escape from.