No political speech has a higher attention-to-importance ratio than the State of the Union address. Rarely are any truly new ideas offered, and even more rarely are proposals realized. These days, as National Journal analyst George Condon points out, the word "new" dominates these speeches, while the ideas themselves are typically ghosts of SOTUs past. Looking at the Obama's four previous SOTUs, "new" appears 132 times, with last year's 34 just about hitting the average. He's already ahead of George W. Bush, who had 101 mentions in seven speeches, but behind Bill Clinton, who used it 275 times. Talk about window dressing.
Why the emphasis on "new"? Presidents want to capture a sense of being forward-looking, active, vital — and of course, historic. "Combine that with presidential envy of Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom, Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, and John F. Kennedy's New Frontier," Condon writes, "and you've got dozens of failed attempts to sell fresh and snappy terms." In this case, Condon also notes, one theme already floated — a "year of action" — inadvertently rehashes one of Richard Nixon's SOTU themes. I doubt anyone at the White House envies Nixon at this point, but they're clearly not doing much original thinking, either.
One theme that President Obama does want to stress is activism. At the beginning of his sixth year in office, Obama will make it clear that either Congress will have to cooperate on his agenda, or he will act on his own within the executive branch to make his policies prevail. The focus of this speech will be income inequality — which will also be nothing new. Obama started talking about this in September 2011, when Mitt Romney first rose to the front of the Republican pack for the 2012 presidential nomination, and Democrats continually hammered on the GOP as the party of the "one percent." Ever since the election, though, Obama has gone largely silent on the issue, except for his occasional "pivots" to the economy when under heavy criticism on other issues.
Once again, a "new" focus just brings up old questions. The economy has been in technical recovery since June 2009, and Obama's economic policies have been in place since the Democrat-controlled Congress authorized an $800 billion stimulus plan in February 2009. The trajectory of the American economy has produced more inequality since then, and not less.
For instance, the civilian workforce participation rate measures the employment status of the U.S. compared to dynamic population. When Obama took office in the middle of the Great Recession meltdown, that measure stood at 65.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In June 2009, at the technical end of the recession, it was still 65.7 percent. By February 2010, the point at which the White House insisted on using as a baseline for stimulus success, it had fallen to 64.9 percent, the lowest since Ronald Reagan's fifth State of the Union speech in January 1986. Right now, that measure stands two full percentage points below that at 62.8 percent, the lowest level since Jimmy Carter's second year in office.
And let's not forget that the Obama administration's biggest legislative victory — the Affordable Care Act, better known as ObamaCare — was supposed to address inequality in the health sector's one-sixth of the economy. Instead, it has so far tossed more people out of insurance than it has provided coverage, has caused premiums to rocket upward as insurers absorb costlier enrollees, and has featured incompetence and unaccountability throughout HHS and the White House. Obama will want to separate ObamaCare from income inequality, but it's the same effort, and highlights the lack of competence for this administration or any other to carry out this kind of reform, either legislatively or through unilateral executive action.
Furthermore, the threat to use executive power is a two-edged sword, especially for a president who claimed the mantle of post-partisanship. Obama wants to paint the Republican-controlled House as too antagonistic to be a serious negotiating partner, but National Journal's Ron Fournier argues that the White House has never actually tried to find out. The White House decided on this strategy after the last budget impasse, and after admitting to The Washington Post to not knowing enough about Republicans on Capitol Hill to negotiate. Fournier was aghast:
Didn't know enough? After five years in office? This official, like so many others in the West Wing, apparently is not sufficiently self-aware to realize that he confirmed an Obama critique — that the president is too removed and disinterested from the political process to affect it, that he doesn't value congressional relations enough to give them anything more than lip service, and that, for his enormous intellectual gifts, Obama is handicapped by a lack of political curiosity. He chose not to know enough about the Republicans. [National Journal]
The film O Brother Where Art Thou perfectly encapsulates the dilemma that a sixth-year president has in articulating a reform agenda for the fifth, sixth, tenth, or infinite time, such as Obama will attempt tonight. Governor Pappy O'Daniel, played by Charles Durning, angrily demands a plan to counter the rising popularity of his opponent in his upcoming re-election fight, and one of his sons suggests offering reform. "How we gonna run reform?" O'Daniel yells at his son. "We're the incumbent!"
That's going to be the problem for Obama tonight, too. How does a second-term president sell the same old reform again for the sixth year in a row, while his policy failures on reform drag down his credibility? Get ready for a heaping helping of déjà vu from President Obama tonight, without the Soggy Bottom Boys on hand to rescue him.