What Will Tonight's State of the Union Address Tell Us?
Do we even need to ask? Mr. Obama's recent inaugural address was 1937 all over again. It seems government can achieve anything by decree, except revive the sick economy. This SOTU is being advertised as a "bookend" to the inaugural -- bookends without books, I suppose. Mainly, as with after-the-fact edits to the Congressional Record, the president will amend and expand his previous remarks.
But, in my role as a speech bookie, recording bets and placing them, here is the book as I see it for tonight:
- SOTU addresses normally kick off a president's legislative agenda for the year ahead. On it's surface, so will this one. The reality will be different.
- Looking through the White House's pre-positioned proposals, something peculiar is pocketed in the vest of each major item: a poison pill.
- Consider immigration. If you read the president's recent speech in Las Vegas, or the talking points his staff distributed to accompany it, Mr. Obama and the Senate Gang of Eight (or six, depending on who's counting) are of one mind. Kumbaya.
- Not so fast. The Gang of Whatever's core compromise was a certifiably secure border to precede (security first was the left's concession) a rapid path to a green card (an innovation) and a slow but clear path to citizenship (the right's concession). Without a concession on each side--and the introduction of widely distributed green cards as a holding place for those already here--the deal could not have been done.
- Yet even before the President delivered his speech, the White House let it be known that this part of the deal (the core of the agreement) was unacceptable. In essence, the president agreed to everything, except what was essential.
- Poison pills are all over the place.
- On the deficit, having got a tax increase with few, if any, real spending cuts in the fiscal-cliff stand off, now the president wants to raise taxes again, and on the same people: the so-called rich -- a non-starter for the GOP.
- On the sequester, expect the president to sound like the soul of reason tonight, but in the end to say that any and all spending cuts to head off the sequester are off the table. He will frame GOP intransigence as the cause of whatever bad happens when the sequester kicks in.
- His goal will be to position Republicans in Congress as obstructionist, then to pummel them in the media until those from marginal districts and states buckle. Divide, humiliate, and ultimately (in the 2014 elections) conquer.
But will it work? Much will depend on public response, which in turn will depend in part on the media -- and on this last we all may be in for a surprise.
In media interviews on this issue over the past week, I have been arguing that poison pill strategies are not normal or constructive. Facing a Congress in the hands of the other party as he started his second term, Bill Clinton was accommodating, not confrontational. Facing a divided Congress, so was Ronald Reagan.
The results: Reagan achieved tax reform. Had it not been for the scandal he brought on himself, Clinton could have achieved Social Security reform. Today, with one house of Congress in the hands of the opposition (in this sense, the election was a tie), the president is playing as if he held all the cards.
The surprise, at least to me, has been that I have encountered almost no push back to this line of argument. Almost no, "but isn't it all the Republicans fault?" The Washington press corps runs as a herd -- one that makes sudden, sharp, entirely unexpected turns in an instant. Perhaps out of boredom, this herd may be ready to turn. Will it?
Here's another thing about the DC press corps. I said it influences public opinion (yes, I know, not a stunning insight), but it works the other way, too. It is just as driven by public opinion as politicans are. The Washington media see the president as popular now. But if that changes -- if no bounce comes from the speech and if his poll numbers turn soft -- their support for Mr. Obama could change, too.
I am not saying that the members of the MSM will morph into Sean Hannitys or Rush Limbaughs, fierce and coherent critics from the right. I am saying that, to me, they feel poised to say that the president (either by way of design or ineptness) is Washington's principal obstructor.
Even the most torrid love affairs can turn tedious. You can feel it when the thrill is starting to go. This one could have a new burst of passion or turn to ashes. But that's the point. On the morning before the president delivers this year's State of the Union address, it could go either way.