State of the Electorate

by John Lawrence

Late on Tuesday afternoon, the Congress went into recess, the House chamber was cleared, and the security sweep was initiated for the annual State of the Union address – President Barack Obama’s last scheduled speech before a joint session of the Congress. The bomb-sniffing dogs moved up and down the aisles of brown leather seats; the temperature in the massive chamber was lowered to bone-chilling levels in preparation for over 900 participants and the withering television lights used to illuminate the room. The Members had scattered, save the dogged (and predictable) few who, regardless of party, camped out – often for hours – on the center aisle to cement their chances for a fleeting photo op – a handshake, a back pat, a kiss on the cheek – from the President of the United States as he made his way down the crowded walkway, through the momentarily cheering crowd, and up to the center lectern on the massive House dais.

There is something special about a State of the Union. Not only is it one of those rare occasions when the President journeys to Capitol Hill, but it is also a unique gathering of the entire hierarchy of the federal government: Executive, Judicial and Legislative branch members, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Cabinet, the Ambassadorial Corps. One member of the Cabinet is always absent, squirrelled away safely in the event of catastrophe to ensure an orderly constitutional success of power. (Last night, that was Homeland Security Secretary, Jeh Johnson.)

Since the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan invited Lenny Skutnik, who had rescued passengers from a crashed airliner in the icy Potomac River, the SOTU has included speculation about whom the President would ask to accompany the First Lady to the speech so that reference could be made to that person (usually described as a “hero”) in the address. This year, the Obamas hauntingly chose to leave a seat vacant, to symbolize the thousands of Americans killed by guns while Congress refuses to enact gun security measures supported by 90 percent of the American people. Surprisingly, the President remained virtually silent about the issue of gun violence, despite the empty seat and the presence of former Rep. Gabby Giffords in the House chamber.

Spoiler alert: Congress is not going to act on most of the proposals recommended by the President. At long last, this inaction and indifference will not surprise even President Obama, who has made it abundantly clear that while neither the Constitution nor he can compel the Congress to act, he alone has the ability to trump (you should pardon the expression) a dysfunctional legislature. Obama, like many presidents before him, will use the Congress’ inaction as a justification for continuing his recent spate of Executive Orders that rely on constitutional or statutory authority already granted to the Executive.

The speech gave short shrift to the President’s major achievements – economic recovery, health care reform, an unprecedented investment in renewable energy, significant expansions in veterans’ benefits: all initiated in the brief period 2009-2010 when he enjoyed substantial congressional majorities that overcame reflexive Republican opposition to all of his initiatives. Obama similarly swept swiftly through the litany of priorities yet to be addressed – immigration reform, equal pay, paid family leave, an increase in the minimum wage, free community college, universal pre-K – that elicited cheers from Democratic loyalists but have no chance of consideration by the current Congress, let alone passage.

Obama clearly has exhausted his efforts at correcting those who show no interest in hewing to facts. He ridiculed the climate change doubters, he dismissed those who refused to acknowledge the strength of the economic recovery, and he chastised those who seek political advantage by falsely claiming that America is less respected or militarily powerful than at the beginning of his Administration. He made it quite clear that rather than continue to knock heads with such blockheads, he will continue to employ his Executive powers to address urgent issues his last year in office, just as Congress has used its constitutional role to ensure legislative inaction.

The portion of the SOTU that will likely be most carefully examined, and certainly will be most discussed on Capitol Hill, is the last quarter of the speech in which Obama shed the role of policy maven and instead reproached both Congress and the American electorate for allowing our political debate to descend into the hysterical and partisan babble that now passes for serious discussion. In perhaps his most pointed slap at Congress, he noted that the legislators sitting before him were among the few Americans who still enjoy lengthy employment and guaranteed benefits in an era of radically changing workplaces. Nice line, but unlikely to win him a lot of friends among the legislators. He invited the saber-rattlers to put their votes where their mouths are and authorize a war against ISIL, and he vowed to continue his offensive against the terrorists even if Congress continues to withhold such an authorization.

Reverting to his professorial best, Obama warned voters that their lack of participation in politics, whether because they were too disgusted or frustrated or indifferent, empowered those who are determined to be engaged, often the more radical fringe and those with large bankrolls. Non-participation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as those with whom you disagree win elections. The trick is to encourage more Americans to participate in a political system in which they have little confidence, and which they have been instructed for several decades to loathe.

The remedies Obama mentioned – congressional districts drawn without regard to partisan advantage, a decreased role for money in politics, a greater degree of public involvement – are all the correct prescriptions, but they are hardly new and are very hard to fulfill. Obama’s opponents, and many in the current crop of his potential successors, have done a great deal to poison the political debate and deflate the interest of vast numbers of potential voters – especially millennials – in political involvement. In a self-critical moment, Obama bemoaned his inability to close the political chasm that separates America and pointed to Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt as the kinds of leaders who might have had better luck. He might want to check his history: both leaders were reviled by their political foes not only as proponents of bad policy, but as hostile to traditional American values.

Obama put his finger on a key point: democracy is not easy, and in the current environment, it is an absolute battlefield without mercy. The change he sought to inspire in 2008 did not result from his election, and will not come from the election of any individual: it needs to come from a better informed and more engaged electorate that demands change rather than one that expects it to be delivered to them. The challenge of building such a spirit among disenchanted American voters may well be a greater task than the election of any candidate or the enactment of any piece of legislation.