Obama’s State of the Union – Playing it Safe

In the days and weeks leading up to President Barack Obama’s sixth – and second from last – State of the Union address, concerns over the content of his speech were high. It’s not that the President has any further campaigns to worry about, because he doesn’t (I know, he reminded us during the speech, because I won both of ’em). But his image during these, the final two years of his presidency, is of tremendous importance to the Democrat who will soon be hoping to succeed him. A peculiar problem is created when an outgoing President leaves office to the relief and even jubilation of the public at large, in that candidates from his own party during the next election are placed in the awkward position of having to avoid association with their less than popular predecessor. This is a phenomenon last seen during the 2008 elections when incumbent two-term President George W Bush suffered the lowest approval rating in the history of American commanders in chief, and it’s not a good thing. Republican presidential hopefuls – of which there were many that year – not only couldn’t count on the credibility and goodwill that normally accompanies an endorsement from a sitting President. No, they had to conspicuously avoid the man, and Bush suddenly felt the weight of responsibility for not sullying his own allies with his damning political presence. And that’s a responsibility, it is to note, that the outgoing President didn’t even always live up to.

It’s easy to suspect Obama had this issue in mind during the State of the Union. While our current President has groaned under dismal approval ratings in the past few years – outdone, in fact, only by George W Bush himself in terms of sheer desolation – he’s been making a comeback in recent times as the economy improves, and he certainly hopes to maintain that upward trend.

“I’ve got really great ideas, but I’m going to tell you over the next 3-4 weeks when nobody is listening”

One notes his caution early on in the speech, when he promised congress to submit a budget in two weeks and assured him he would be taking that and his other political ideas around the country directly to the American people over the coming months, and as such he wanted to lessen his focus on specific proposals during that speech. Of course, the President did pitch his own ideas to congress, but true to his word he did less of it, and when he did it was with a heavy emphasis on bipartisan cooperation for goals he made as palatable as possible.

Forced Sympathy

There’s a tradition in the State of the Union speech for the President to tell the story of a single American family’s struggles and triumphs. Usually this is done towards the end of the speech, but this time Obama chose to further soften many of his coming proposals by leading with the inspirational tale of Rebecca and Ben Erler of Minneapolis. Married seven years ago, this young couple consisted of a waitress and a construction worker. With a child on the way, their hopes for the future were high. But they couldn’t have predicted the coming housing collapse, and the impact it would have on Ben Erler’s construction work. Increasingly desperate, Ben was forced to take any available work, even jobs that kept him away from his home and family. Meanwhile, Rebecca took out student loans and enrolled in community college, hoping to train herself for a new, more lucrative career. Ultimately, through sacrifice and hard work, they were able to improve their fortune. Ben managed to get back into construction, Rebecca is now earning more than ever before, and they even have a second child together. Obama quoted a letter Rebecca had written him last Spring, in which she expressed her feelings of having survived a great trial: “It is amazing what you can bounce back from,î she wrote. “We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.î

Having told this touching story with which no one could possibly find fault, Obama was able to safely segue into his concrete proposals. Despite Rebecca and Ben’s ability to succeed without any of this, he called on congress to raise the minimum wage, which – adjusted for inflation – is worth 20% less today than it was during Republican Ronald Reagan’s presidency. He wants the government to embark on a maintenance campaign of the country’s roads and bridges, infrastructure that he warns is dangerously in need of attention. He even advocated for a mandatory 7 days per year of paid sick leave for all employees, and addressed the issue of pay inequality faced by women in the workplace.

Government makework programs and an increase in the minimum wage comprised the most controversial of Obama’s ideas, and they shouldn’t cause much difficulty in the 2016 elections. With a recovering economy and Americans looking forward to getting back to work, most people are in favor of a minimum wage increase, and the maintenance of national infrastructure is hardly equivalent to digging ditches and filling them up again.

“We need that authority?”

Moving on from economics, Obama also launched a cleverly aggressive push for legitimacy in his military campaign against the terrorist group ISIS. Having long maintained that he has the power under the Constitution to engage in military action with or without congressional approval, he nevertheless specifically asked congress to authorize the strikes which are already ongoing, crucially stating the words “We need that authority.” The significance of this declaration can scarcely be overstated, given Obama’s venerable position that he doesn’t need congress to approve. This is a man who is confident that he can get the nod, and obviously believes that doing so will make his use of force more likeable to the American people, strengthening his image today as well as post 2016.

China Loves the Environment

Staying safe, Obama’s praise of emerging mega-economy China’s efforts to combat climate change will not likely ruffle any feathers. Acceptance of the climate change model grows more prevalent over time, not less, and while there remain far-right conservatives who question the science behind this theory – or even accuse the whole thing of being a liberal scan perpetrated against the American people – such are becoming progressively more disenfranchised.

We’ve Heard This Story Before

Pay poor people more, kill terrorists, get people jobs, save the environment. With a list of carefully structured (i.e., safe) proposals delivered against the sympathetic backdrop of struggling American families, the near universal American ire against Middle Eastern terror, and widespread concern over the impact of human activity on the environment, Obama’s penultimate State of the Union address took few real risks. This is to be expected from a two-term president in the twilight of his role as commander in chief, and likely comes at the relief of prospective Democratic candidates – especially Hillary Clinton, currently the most likely name to appear on the Democrats’ ballot – who appear well poised to enjoy the support of a sitting President during their campaign. It can only be a boon for the Democratic hopeful in 2016 to be able to appear at rallies with a popular outgoing Obama by their side, and promises to be a significant advantage over the Republican contender. Obama still has one State of the Union address to go because it’s time to pack his bags, but if he plays it as safe as he did this one, neither he, nor the Democrats, have much to worry about.

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