Obama and Congress: The Battle Begins

by John Lawrence

President Obama’s sixth State of the Union address – and his first to a Republican-controlled Congress — was a smart, tactical speech that, for the most part, accomplished what little such an address can achieve. The President used his hour in the national spotlight to establish his values as well as to assert his policies, to cast himself as the reasonable conciliator rather than partisan-in-chief, and to invite the opposition to join hands for the common good or, failing that, tumble into the traps he artfully set for them.

The high points of the speech were the opening few minutes and the close that avoided the tiresome litany of presidential priorities (and standing ovations by delighted legislators) that generally are well into their half life before the SOTU speech has ended. Most presidents use the SOTU to describe such a program of initiatives, and nearly all pay a double price:

(1) the opposition party and commentators add up the cost of all the promises and translate the astronomical sum into a tax bill to be presented to the American people, or a prescription for additional debt, and

(2) the list of unenactables become check-list the following year’s SOTU commentary to remind viewers how little was achieved, and by extension, the futility of the list you are about to hear.

Having achieved a reasonable economic recovery, which Obama reminded the nation has dwarfed that recorded by Europe and Japan, the President did not need to propose a massive spending initiatives designed simply to return the country to a state of economic stability. Instead, he was able to focus on policies that improve the quality of life and security of millions of Americans by delivering measurable benefits to the middle class: affordable child care, free community college, improved infrastructure. He was able to note progress on issues that enjoy broad public support – global warming, energy independence, immigration reform – that highlight his own presidential initiatives while chiding Republicans for their inaction.

Indeed, a major goal of the speech was to legitimize his role as President, and his governance through Executive Order, contrasting his unilateral achievements with congressional inaction, and to claim the high moral, political and policy ground.

Nowhere is this truer than tax reform, where Obama focused attention on the need for the wealthiest to contribute more – not as punishment, but because protecting their super-affluence deprives the middle class of its own economic security. There is, Obama reminded Americans, a price of economic inequality that goes beyond simply moral outrage, and it impacts the vast majority of Americans, regardless of income, party or ideology. Naturally, Republicans interpret the call for higher taxes on the affluent as a revival of “class warfare” and promise a more even-handed approach to tax reform than is revenue neutral, but those promises belie the inaction of House Republicans on tax policy over the past four years during which they have controlled the House and run the Ways and Means Committee. (Incidentally, if I were advising the Democrats, I wouldn’t jump too quickly onto the “tax-cut-for-everyone” bandwagon; the Bush middle class tax cuts were made permanent only two years ago and took a major chunk out of the Nation’s revenues. Cutting taxes for the middle class again is a very expensive proposition which will exacerbate deficit concerns which will blow back with calls for additional non-defense discretionary cuts that impact lower income Americans, who get little from tax cuts.)

The speech became more routine in the middle as Obama recited the litany of initiatives he had initially said he would resist offering. This standard format yielded the standard result: Democrats rising to cheer every 30 seconds, Republicans sitting on their hands glumly as the President tossed off proposals most Americans think are no-brainers (paid sick leave, non-discrimination against LGBT Americans, protecting the right to vote). Presiding over the inert (though enlarged) Republican side of the room was the stony, tanned face of Speaker John Boehner who looked like he was glued to his chair and sucking on lemons. Boehner rarely bothered to stand up even when he was applauding, which understandably wasn’t very often.

The other Republican to share the evening with the President was Iowa’s new Sen. Joni Ernst who like most SOTU responders, has probably just registered the widest national audience of her career. Intent on denying Obama any credit, Ernst portrayed the economy as sputtering one step above calamity, completely missing the opportunity for Republicans to claim credit by having forced Obama and Democrats to accept major spending reductions (and making the case, however flawed factually, that spending cuts helped the recovery). Instead, she was left asserting the unprovable: that the economy remains in crisis, hauling out the old canard that we need to slash the deficit (i.e., cut programs she’d rather not enumerate because they are popular) despite a deficit reduction of more than two-thirds under Obama’s watch. For good measure, Ernst threw in the need for some tough new anti-abortion laws (which the House will vote on), further alienating the millennial voters whom Republicans are having trouble reaching on social issues.

Ernst did provide the memorable image, however, of walking to school in the rain with plastic bread bags covering her shoes in order to illustrate her family’s economic tenuousness and frugality. I wonder how many expensive federal farm programs – crop support, price support, USDA extension support, transportation infrastructure, farm tax credits, rural electrification, marketing orders, surplus crop supports, drought relief, soil improvement programs, disaster assistance, to name a few – the Ernst family was able to take advantage of before she (and many of her rural Republican legislative allies) decided it was time to attack free-spending federal programs.

The other memorable line of the evening, unquestionably, was President Obama’s rejoinder to Republicans who applauded his mention that he would not be running for office again. As he reminded them, that is because he won his two elections. It was a perfect put down of the reflexive Republican response to the mention of his inevitable departure from the stage in two years; I’d love to believe it was improvised, but I suspect the speechwriters had that one safely tucked into the address.

An inevitable part of any SOTU is the analysis which focuses on how much, if any, of the President’s program is likely to be enacted. In this case, the answer is pretty clearly, not much. Nor is there much prospect for collaboration in areas that there is consensus deserve attention, such as tax reform and immigration, because powerful forces want those issues alive for the 2016 campaigns, not neatly resolved with compromises that inflame the bases which are needed for turnout and fundraising.

But it is important to note that while the next two years are unlikely to produce the cornucopia of legislative achievements the country might deserve, such periods are relatively rare, which is why Congress has perennially been blamed for being a slow, unresponsive institution. Historian George Galloway called it “an oxcart in the age of the atom,” and that was in 1946. Even the massive bursts of legislative productivity – FDR’s first term, LBJ’s Great Society – occurred in periods of extraordinary political consensus and lasted far more briefly than most people appreciate.

The real issue to watch, as it plays out over the next two years, is the maneuvering between the Executive and Legislative branches of government. For four decades, since the congressional battles with the Imperial Presidencies of LBJ and Richard Nixon, Congress has been battling to reassert itself as a co-equal branch of government, as contrasted with former Pennsylvania Sen. Joseph Clark characterization as “the sapless branch.” The Ford Administration in the mid-1970s was able to assert itself against the 94th Congress by a vigorous use of the veto which frequently could not be overridden despite overwhelming Democratic numbers that far exceeded what Republicans now enjoy in the 114th Congress. Through the use of the veto pen and Executive Orders, President Obama has signaled that he will use his remaining two years to stretch presidential authority as far as he can if Congress continues to prove nonproductive, choosing consensus-based issues to maximize his authority while defying Congress to assert its own prerogatives. That is a classic, historic battle between the branches that will endure for two years and be vastly more consequential than one speech to the nation.