by Joel B. Pollak 28 Jan 2014, 8:31 AM PDT
President Barack Obama has one thing going for him, as he prepares for his 2014 State of the Union Address: low expectations. Pundits have panned the speech before seeing it, the otherwise friendly media is lamenting his poor poll numbers, and even members of his own party are suggesting that there is nothing he can do to revive his presidency. The scandals of 2013 and the disastrous rollout of Obamacare have knocked him down.
The president is vowing that he will use (or, critics contend, exceed) his executive authority if Congress does not bend to his whim. However, he has made similar threats before. And while they were politically useful in setting up Congress as a rhetorical foil in his re-election effort, such gestures are increasingly falling flat as the president's unilateralism is being challenged in court and elsewhere. They suggest impotence, not power.
The two likely themes for the president's address are already well known. In addition to announcing new executive actions--such as a $10.10 minimum wage for federal contractors--the president will focus (again) on inequality, urging Congress to reverse the growing gap between rich and poor. He is unlikely to address the cause of that gap: the Federal Reserve's bond-buying program, and continuing stagnation in the job market.
The president's greatest challenge remains the political and policy damage being wrought by Obamacare. More Americans are losing their current insurance than are gaining new insurance. And though the president declared in past years that he would be open to Congress's reforms, in practice he has preferred to change the law by fiat instead. He has ignored the political process--which is why he is increasingly ignored himself.
Summaries of previous addresses:
In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama set out a detailed agenda for his second term--a highly ambitious and diverse array of goals that few thought had any chance of succeeding in a divided Congress. Indeed, the only achievement during the subsequent year was an easing--not a reversal--of the sequester cuts that the President called a "really bad idea" (though they came from the White House).
The president focused--as he often does--on economic inequality, declaring that despite signs of economic recovery, "we gather here knowing that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded." He set the goal of his administration as the restoration of "a rising, thriving middle class," and devised a set of complex federal government policies and interventions to achieve that aim.
The president also highlighted some prominent social goals, including "background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun," "tax reform and entitlement reform," and "comprehensive immigration reform," all of which seemed possible, or even likely, at the outset of 2013 but none of which was achieved due to scandals, fights with Congress over the budget and debt ceiling, and the Obamacare rollout.
The president also proposed goals that seemed less achievable--and, indeed, were ignored, such as universal preschool education and raising the federal minimum wage to $9 per hour ($10 in this year's proposals). In foreign policy, he pledged to reach a diplomatic solution with Iran on its nuclear program--and did reach an interim deal by year's end, though one critics said did not prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. He also promised to maintain pressure on the Syrian regime, which he failed to do over the course of the year.
In a preview of his re-election campaign, President Barack Obama used his 2012 State of the Union address to describe a horrific past to which he would not let the nation return. “No, we will not go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing, bad debt, and phony financial profits...to the days when health insurance companies had unchecked power to cancel your policy, deny your coverage, or charge women differently than men...to the days when Wall Street was allowed to play by its own set of rules.”
Touting the successful raid against Osama bin Laden, the president raised eyebrows by suggesting that the military was a model for how the country as a whole should work: “When you’re in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one nation, leaving no one behind.” Gone were the days when Obama sawdissent as patriotic.
The president also talked up the nation’s economic recovery, and pledged to revive manufacturing, to confront China over trade, and (once again) to reform the nation’s tax code. He also repeated promises to focus on education, immigration reform, and renewable energy. In fact, so much of his 2012 address was repeated from previous years that the Republican National Committee released a side-by-side comparison.
Projecting election-year pride, Obama spoke about various achievements over his first term, telling Congress (inaccurately) that opinions of America had risen worldwide. Obama also made a false claim about the deficit that Democrats have since repeated in various forms--namely, that he had cut $2 trillion from spending. He also promised that he would fight financial crimes, even though Wall Street has yet to face one prosecution related to the 2008 crash.
Obama did make--and deliver on--one new promise: to ban insider trading in Congress, a cause that began with Breitbart editor Peter Schweizer.
Three months after his party suffered massive midterm election losses, President Barack Obama addressed the new, divided Congress in his 2011 State of the Union address. He began by referring to the recent Tucson shootings as a reminder of the importance of unity amidst “the noise and passion and rancor of our public debate,” a theme Democrats in particular had stressed, as if that rancor were conservatives’ fault.
Obama’s soaring rhetoric on the economy was more restrained than in previous years. He lauded some positive signs: “[T]he stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.” Yet he acknowledged implicitly that jobs remained a challenge, calling for a new jobs bill. Putting a positive spin on bleak results, the president claimed the economy was “poised for progress”--a phrase he hasrepeated through today.
While promising a freeze on new federal spending for five years, Obama spoke about the spending he wanted to protect, particularly “investment” in innovation, education and infrastructure. The U.S. faced a “Sputnik moment,” he said, and had to rise to the challenge. He lauded programs such as Race to the Top, and promised to lower the corporate tax rate, review government regulations, consider tort reform, simplify the tax code, and tackle immigration reform--all of which he failed to do in the following years.
On foreign policy, the president repeated many of the points he had made in 2010, and added that gay troops would no longer be barred from service. He also endorsed the uprising in Tunisia that kicked off the “Arab Spring”; after being criticized for reacting too slowly to the radical changes across the region, now Obama sought to endorse them.
President Barack Obama began his 2010 State of the Union address by acknowledging that the country was still going through tough economic times. He took credit for cutting taxes “for 95 percent of working families” (in reality, a payroll tax credit that expired in 2011). Despite unemployment near 10%, he took credit for 2 million jobs that he claimed would otherwise have been lost; if true, that statistic referred to public, not private, jobs.
Obama described a number of economic proposals. He described a new lending fund for community banks, which failed by 2011. He lauded the start of a new high-speed rail project in Florida, which was eventually halted by the new governor. He promised that Solyndra would create 1,000 new jobs; it closed the next year. He pledged to double exports in five years; in the years since, exports have risen less than 30%. He also promised to help those struggling with student loans and mortgages; however, student loan delinquency is rising, and mortgage assistance programs were largely ineffective.
The president focused on Obamacare, which had triggered nationwide opposition, and promised it would “preserve the right of Americans who have insurance to keep their doctor and their plan.” (This month, the Congressional Budget Office revealed that 7 million would lose their insurance.) Obama also promised his plan would “bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses”--almost all of which has turned out to be untrue.
In one of the speech’s most memorable--and alarming--moments, President Obama rebuked the Supreme Court, which was seated in front of him, for their decision in the Citizens United case, charging that it would allow foreign corporations “to spend without limit” in U.S. elections. Justice Samuel Alito quietly mouthed the words: “Not true.”
Obama then attacked the culture of Washington, “where every day is Election Day.” He closed with strong words on foreign policy, pledging to fight Al Qaeda even as the U.S. withdrew from Iraq and Afghanistan. He criticized human rights abuses in Iran, which he was slow to do during protests in 2009, and described nuclear negotiations with Russia.
In 2009, President Barack Obama addressed both houses of Congress in the midst of the worst of the recession, and delivered what was then one of the most ideological, left-wing addresses by a president in American history. (He has since surpassed that with his second inaugural address). The president promised that we would “emerge stronger than before.” If so, looking back, we did not do so by the end of his first term.
Obama took aim at his predecessors, telling America that they had not previously met their economic and social responsibilities. He would, Obama promised, address that failure, starting with job creation. He promised that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (i.e. the stimulus) would “save or create” create 3.5 million jobs in two years, more than 90 percent of which (i.e. 3.15 million) would be in the private sector, he said.
In fact, the private sector went on to lose 1.4 million jobs over the next two years. As Obama would later admit, many of the so-called “shovel-ready” stimulus projects simply weren’t. The president went on to attack the idea that government has “no role” to play in the economy, pledging to “invest”in “energy, health care, and education” while at the same time “cut[ting] back on programs we don’t need,” though he did not mention any.
Among other promises, Obama pledged to “double this nation's supply of renewable energy in the next three years.” (In fact, it rose by just over 10%.) He promised to pass health reform that would be “paid for” and would reduce the deficit. (Today, the costs of Obamacare continue to rise past estimates.) And he “pledged to cut the deficit in half by the end of my first term in office). In reality, he has run deficits over $1 trillion each year.