The State of the Union address long ago devolved into political theater, so it is no surprise that both President Obama and members of Congress surrounded themselves with sympathetic guests, among them the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School and the mother of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year old Chicagoan gunned down by Chicago gang members just days after she had performed at the president’s second inauguration in Washington.
Equally unsurprising is that the media cover the event as political theater, noting for television viewers who sat with whom, who lined the aisles to get a personal hand slap from the president, announcing the exact time that the president enters the House chamber, and counting the number of times the constitutionally-mandated “report” was interrupted by applause, along with noting which Supreme Court Justices declined to attend. What the Academy Awards are to cinema, the State of the Union Address has become to politics.
But beyond the red carpet, the applause lines, the predictably adjective-laden introduction, and the usual bi-partisan platitude that “the state of the Union is strong,” what did the president actually have to offer from a policy perspective? Essentially more of the same.
In sum and substance, on the domestic front the president offered little more than a continuance of the failed policies of the progressive era in five major policy arenas: (1) an expert-driven energy policy to ensure “energy independence” and reduce “global warming, which the president promises to push through by executive order if the Congress won’t act; (2) a 1930’s Depression-era style public works program to rebuild roads and bridges; (3) yet another housing stimulus bill to “streamline” the mortgage-lending process in a way that led to the economy-destroying mortgage bubble that burst in 2008; (4) more government subsidies to education at all levels; and (5) a national increase in the minimum wage. To say that these policies have been tried before and found wanting would be at best an understatement.
On the foreign policy front, the commander-in-chief skittered hither and yon, flitting from tough talk accompanied by little action on Korea and Iran to extolling “equal treatment for all service members and equal benefits for their families, gay and straight” to promising more women in combat while removing the rest of our troops from Afghanistan and pushing domestically for a second “Violence Against Women Act.” After a ritualistic nod to supporting Israel’s security and “lasting peace” in the Middle East, the President closed with two of his favorite causes and those of his Justice Department: voting rights and gun control.
Regarding the former, President Obama promised to appoint a non-partisan commission to “improve the voting experience in America”; regarding the latter, he proposed the “common sense reforms” of background checks, “tough new laws” to prevent gun sales to criminals, and keeping “weapons of war off our streets,” insisting with the practiced cadence and repetition of the community organizer that he is that “they deserve a vote” – “they deserve a vote” – “they deserve a vote!”
It was in the middle of his speech, however, when he discussed immigration reform, that the president at his most bipartisan and therefore the most constructive and impressive. If he means what he says – and he often doesn’t – then we as Americans can look forward to improved border security, a responsible pathway to citizenship that requires illegal immigrants first to learn English and then to go to the back of the line, and a shortened wait for legal immigrants for who are highly skilled, including engineers. These are policies that the Congress can and should get behind, and with vigor.
All in all, the president’s fourth State of the Union address was highly predictable, largely unremarkable, and competently if unimpressively delivered. If Congress can hold him to his promises regarding immigration reform and slow-roll most of the rest, then the State of the Union will indeed be strong.