Essay: Union Address Is Explicitly Mandated

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[. . .] In the reality of 2014, it felt instead like a rhetorically constructed moment that the Congressional audience would not permit Obama to turn into a meme or hashtag. Since the discussion was framed by Obama in terms of overall congressional inaction, however, he was hardly playing to the audience in the room.

Health care, however, provided Obama with the most salient example of recalcitrance from the audience in the chamber. The Affordable Care Act began taking effect on January 1, and Obama restated its selling points: chiefly that anyone with a pre-existing condition can no longer be denied coverage, and that "if misfortune strikes you, you don't have to lose everything." He noted the number of Americans to whom health care coverage has now been extended by the ACA in the past few weeks. But this was not an issue where Obama was offering specific proposals, other than to suggest to Congressional Republicans "let's not have another forty-something votes to repeal a law that's already helping millions of Americans." He then pointed to the Governor of Kentucky, in the audience, as someone from a Republican-dominated state who had enthusiastically embraced the new health care law. Obama's message about health care was largely rhetorical and aimed at the House Republicans: that "we all owe it to the American people to say what we're for, not just what we're against."

4. Was Obama's speech a success? If we examine it in terms of concrete and substantive points, the speech is disappointing: there was very little in terms of actual proposals being offered, apart from the (largely symbolic) minimum wage increase for federal contractors. But this reflects the overall climate of Republican obstructionism that Obama faced throughout 2013. The actual state of the union in the past year has involved a government shutdown, total legislative gridlock, and polls demonstrating the massive unpopularity of Congress among all Americans. (An October 2013 poll claimed that Congress was less popular than cockroaches.) However, given the debased political conditions of 2013, we need to ask what success for Obama in this speech would even entail. Obama is not personally popular enough to turn the speech into a harangue against Congressional obstructionism: such a speech would look like an extension of the political polarization that is, indeed, the cause of much public disapproval. Instead, Obama used the speech to do the most sensible thing he could maange: he placed the issues solidly before Congress and ask them to deal with them, and he appealed to those outside Congress (mayors, governors, state legislators) to take action if Congress will not.

In terms of the three issues I have singled out -- education, minimum wage, and health care -- we can see the utter limitations placed on Obama without any congressional support. For education, Obama convenes summits and organizes partnerships to achieve very modest goals: he was hardly proposing free early education or free higher education for everybody (although both are standard in European democracies). For minimum wage, Obama can take executive action, but it affects a tiny sliver of America's actual minimum wage workforce -- it applies only to federal contractors. The President can do nothing to pizza store owners (and those like them) except encourage them to do the right thing: they cannot be compelled to raise the minimum wage without legislative action. And in terms of healthcare, Obama was facing a futile but unending congressional revolt: the 47 failed votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which Obama mentioned in the speech, have been as much of a media event with few substantial real-world consequences as Obama's State of the Union speech was.

5. Bizarrely the Republican Party offered four different responses: an official one by Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers and a Spanish-language version of the same speech by Rep. Ileanna Ros-Lehtinen, plus an "official Tea Party" response by Sen. Mike Lee, and a rather chilling presidential campaign launch posing as a response offered by Sen. Rand Paul. McMorris-Rodgers, and presumably the Spanish-language equivalent, were rather short on content. It was impossible for me to evaluate Ros-Lehtinen's Spanish-language version of McMorris-Rodgers's speech, but presumably it had the same vague ideological blather about free markets and replaced the autobiographical musings about working at a McDonald's drive-thru or giving birth to a baby with Downs Syndrome with different autobiographical [END OF PREVIEW]

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