Tonight, one of the grandest and emptiest of presidential traditions returns — the State of the Union address to the joint session of Congress. The annual report is required by the Constitution, but not in person; until 1913, Presidents usually sent a written status report. We can thank Woodrow Wilson for the modern tradition, which hits its centennial this year, but let’s face it: as soon as television arrived, this was going to be the norm no matter what.
What can we expect? National Journal’s George Condon gets it right in the lead paragraph:
When President Obama takes to the speaker’s rostrum on the floor of the House of Representatives Tuesday evening, you can expect him to speak for more than an hour. But don’t bet on him saying anything you’ll remember a month later.
Or anything Obama will remember, either. In my column for The Week, I predict that we’ll see all of the usual pomp and rhetorical mechanics, plus a new innovation from Barack Obama — the Annual SOTU Jobs Pivot:
These aspects of the State of the Union speech have become every bit as traditional as the speech itself. But thanks to President Obama, to those traditions we can add another: the annual pivot to jobs. Indeed, The Washington Post reported over the weekend that Obama would once again try to give the impression that his central policy focus is on job creation.
“President Obama will concentrate his State of the Union speech Tuesday on the economy, shifting the emphasis away from the broad social agenda of his second inaugural address to refocus attention on a set of problems that vexed his first term,” wrote the Post‘s Scott Wilson. “Several senior administration officials involved in the speech say he will use his fourth State of the Union address to talk about jobs after the national unemployment rate ticked up last month.”
If that sounds familiar, it should. With every State of the Union address, and with many other scheduled speeches from President Obama, the White House insists that he will return to the issues of jobs and the economy that worry Americans most. Each time, however, the focus promised by Obama ends up diverted back into the “broad social agenda” which most interests Obama.
How seriously can we take this? Well …
Over the last three months since the election, the White House has tried to claim that Obama has refocused on job creation. In late November, Obama proposed a hiring subsidy that had been kicking around for a couple of years without success, and which would have little impact on hiring decisions. However, it quickly became clear that the second Obama term would have other priorities, such as climate change. In fact, Obama highlighted that issue in his inaugural speech, while only mentioning “jobs” three times, none of them in the context of prioritizing job creation. Obama included the word “economy” only once, and only to say that “a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, schools and colleges to train our workers” — to provide a rationale for expanded government spending.
Finally, we can see what priority the Obama administration planned to give jobs in the second term by the disbanding of the president’s “Jobs Council.” It had only met four times, and there is no evidence that Obama even considered any advice it might have offered. Until the announcement of economic contraction in the fourth quarter that came in the same week, it was clear that Obama had no real interest in an agenda that prioritized economic growth over his progressive agenda.
Let’s just say that the President talks a lot about jobs and the economy in SOTU speeches. He’s not interested in actually doing anything about it, or at least not as interested as he is in his social-policy agenda of climate change, gun control, and the like.
The media is also tamping down expectations of actual impact from tonight’s effort, too:
Rarely have State of the Union addresses moved public opinion, and rarely have they led to the kind of broad legislative accomplishments that presidents propose. For all the ritual and attention surrounding these speeches, the State of the Union is, well, sort of lame.
“Most of the speeches can be summarized in three words: boring, boring, boring,” said Allan Lichtman, author of “The 13 Keys to the Presidency.” “They tend to be laundry lists. But sometimes they rise above that.” …
In his 2012 speech, Obama proposed that every state require that students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18, a recommendation that also fell flat.
That wasn’t the only proposal that Obama abandoned as soon as the cameras turned off. Remember the Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities Working Group from a year ago? Neither does Obama:
A year ago, in his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama promised to sic a task force of prosecutors on Wall Street firms, offering up some election-year red meat by targeting the bad guys who bundled toxic mortgages and sold them as solid investments during the financial crisis.
But as Obama prepares to address the nation again, on Tuesday night, his Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities Working Group has more words in its name than wins in court. …
So, all in all, the RMBS Working Group, which has five co-chairs, has been a stereotypical interagency Washington task force.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, one of the co-chairs, got so fed up with Justice that he went directly to the White House last summer to plead for more investigators, according to two sources with knowledge of the matter.
“Did you get a copy of their report? It’s pretty good, isn’t it?” Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) joked sarcastically about the lack of output from the task force. “It’s a political stunt by the administration, which is what [Obama] has done during his State of the Union addresses.”
In other words, the SOTU is just … other words. Jim VanDeHei appeared on Morning Joe to discuss tonight’s speech, and to issue skepticism over whether Obama will make any impact with an expected plea for gun control legislation:
Background checks will move forward regardless of what Obama says in tonight’s SOTU speech; there is too much of a political consensus for tightening the requirements on sales. Obama can only damage that consensus tonight by taking ownership of it during the speech. Otherwise, this will be yet another forgettable laundry list, in a script that one can write from memory regarding applause lines, special guests, and the momentarily overwhelming attention to a speech that will almost immediately become nothing more than a reference material for noting unfulfilled promises — especially on the economy, as has been the case now for four years.
Update: Senator Ron Johnson predicts what the President won’t say:
The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that between 2014 to 2018, Americans will pay $1.77 trillion of their hard earned money, just to pay the interest. The Congressional Budget Office then estimated that the interest we all will pay in the five years after 2018 is $3.64 trillion – about the size of our entire federal budget in 2012 and an estimated cost of $30,000 per current household over that five-year period.
Just to remind you again, that money can’t be used for government programs or defense of the nation. It doesn’t even pay off or reduce Washington’s debt. It merely pays interest to our money lenders.
This is not a partisan issue. Both major parties have helped create that debt. Whether you are a Republican, Democrat or independent, the debt impacts you. Whether you are conservative, moderate or liberal, we are all in the same economic boat and we will sink or float together.
Washington has been unwise, irresponsible and greedy. That much is not even debatable. The real questions are: Do the American people have the wisdom Washington lacks? Will the American people demand that the professional political class in Washington kick its addiction to spending money it does not have and stop endangering the economic security of the very people they purport to represent?
On Tuesday night, President Obama will address many issues in his State of the Union address. I can promise you he will try to sell Americans on increasing taxes again. He will talk about “investing in America,”, which is Washington political window dressing for increased Washington spending and future debt.
President Obama will outline more things Washington can do for you. In fact, he’ll declare that these are things Washington should do for you.
What he won’t address – at least honestly address – is the fine print of his contract. He won’t address the massive suffering that will result if this nation does not get its financial house in order. He won’t say that his plans do not include reduced spending and smaller government in Washington. He won’t lay out the problem of debt or how Washington can begin mitigating and then reducing the true cost of that debt and put this nation back on a path of enduring prosperity.
He may mention this, if only to blame it on the unfairness of the tax system.