Part of the theater associated with the State of the Union address lies in the camera capturing the live reactions of a few members of Congress and other attendees. I’m sure several of the Democrats who are facing reelection in 2014 are nervous about how they will comport themselves during the speech if they are caught on camera. If the president sets himself up for an applause line on Obamacare, how will they handle it so that their reaction can’t be used against them in their campaigns back home? Will Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu applaud at all? Will Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) give the president a standing ovation? I assume Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) will show up, but it’s certain she will not maneuver to get an aisle seat so she can shake hands with the president as he makes his way to the podium. I’m sure that if the State of the Union speech was optional, many Democrats would prefer to pass this year. Look for a lot of slumped shoulders and poker faces from vulnerable Democrats as President Obama speaks.
Overall, the president’s speech presents more of a problem than an opportunity for the Democrats. How can the president rally the faithful and reassure the worried candidates who will face voters in less than 11 months? I can’t imagine what the president could say that we haven’t heard before. And if he’s ambitious and lays out a bold agenda for the next year, he’ll be accused of being in denial about how little he has accomplished and delusional about his own capabilities. If he presents a minimalist agenda, it will feed the notion that he and the Democrats are drifting and out of energy.
But he has to say something. It is predictable that he will taunt Republicans with the promise of executive orders if they don’t act on this or that. Yawn. There will be tiresome retread applause lines for the Democratic faithful about global warming, the minimum wage and, of course, a focus on their latest fad cause du jour, “inequality.” At least it will be interesting to hear the president explain how he will now battle the injustice of the income inequality his very own policies continue to exacerbate.
It’s debatable whether America has suffered a permanent decline under Obama, but no one can doubt that the president is not nearly the formidable figure he was when he addressed Congress as in 2009. Five years into the Obama presidency, others command center stage. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are all shaping today’s world to a greater extent than the American president. Only an emergency could put Obama back in the driver’s seat.
As I’ve said before, in Washington it’s easy to be busy, but it’s difficult to be productive. Luckily for the president, I don’t think anyone expects him to be productive. And as president, it is easy to look busy. He can occupy the days with earnest meetings and endless ceremonial functions that can give him an appearance of engagement but, in fact, no meaningful progress will occur. It’s the political equivalent of brownian motion – random, constant movement that never really goes anywhere.
The deflated Obama presidency is winding down. Unless tomorrow’s speech contains some remarkably creative surprise ingredient, it is more likely to focus attention on America’s limitations under Obama than on the potential that many thought existed five years ago.
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