Last night President Barack Obama delivered the State of the Union address, and discussed issues like immigration reform, the minimum wage, climate change, gender equality in the workplace, withdrawal from Afghanistan and other issues impacting the military and US foreign affairs. Professors from Hofstra University’s Political Science Department watched with great interest and offer their assessment of the President’s speech.
President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address followed the traditional format of these speeches in the era of the modern presidency. It highlighted key issues in the president’s policy agenda for the coming year – jobs and the economy, energy, and immigration – and clearly outlined the White House’s position on other important policy issues, such as early childhood education, voting reform, retirement savings (with an interesting proposal for new retirement accounts), and American interests abroad.
The president’s speech likely will not lead his critics to change their views, and advocates for the president may have hoped for a stronger message on what Washington needs to do to ensure the country’s sustained economic health. If the message does not persuade, then does it still serve a purpose?
Constitutionally, it is required, though not necessarily in person – Thomas Jefferson sent his report on the state of the union to Congress in writing, and the tradition continued for more than 100 years, until Woodrow Wilson resumed the eighteenth-century practice of delivering the address in person. Politically, the message also serves to provide a common focus for the American public and our elected officials on top national priorities for the year and their long-term implications. By directing casual conversations as well as policy deliberations to these issues, the state of the union message continues to contribute to American politics and public policy.
There was nothing new in the president’s State of the Union address. Close Guantanamo? Really? Wasn’t that a campaign promise in 2008? He should be embarrassed to bring it up. Otherwise, it was full of predictable liberal talking points: climate change, the minimum wage, immigration reform, solar energy and gun control.
Voting rights? Is that what’s wrong with America? Does the president realize that inflation is like that in a third world country, and you have to be wealthy to buy groceries? And we know he saved the auto industry — he doesn’t have to remind us.
What about those health insurance plans that were cancelled? And don’t even start me on Iran — if the president believes that Iran is not making a nuclear bomb I’ve got a bridge to sell him in Brooklyn. The only real accomplishment was with unemployment benefits which, undoubtedly, should help a lot of people.
Assistant Professor of Political Science
Given the state of the world, the US clearly faces many troublesome foreign policy issues. But with so many problems to deal with at home, President Obama’s State of the Union address understandably focused mostly on domestic policy and the foreign policy portions of the speech provided little, if any, new insight.
This is at least partly because the US has few good options and limited leverage when it comes to quelling the conflict in Syria, pushing the Israelis and Palestinians to make peace, or even getting Afghan President Karzai to sign the bilateral security agreement and work as a partner to manage the US drawdown in Afghanistan.
President Obama’s defense of the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program – invoking Reagan and Kennedy’s willingness to engage the Soviet during the Cold War – was likely the strongest foreign policy element of the speech. Whether these negotiations lead to a lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear issue remains to be seen, but Obama’s argument for the need engage enemies and balance the threat of military force with diplomacy to ensure US national security – even if unlikely to persuade hawkish critics of the President – was well crafted.
Professor of Political Science
As an instrument of short-term, small-ball politics, the president’s speech cleverly outed his opposition’s radical vision for America. Who could oppose equal pay, a minimum wage above the poverty line or unemployment insurance for hard-hit workers? Well, now we know. Still, Obama continues to play Good Cop, Good Cop with the GOP and it is not too much to say that his failure from the beginning to understand the true nature of his enemies has cost him a meaningful presidency.
Obama is also hobbled by his unremitting instinct for the capillary. He set out to be a transformational president, but the absence of theme in his speech, and his near-befuddlement in a recent prominent interview when asked about his goals for the remainder of his presidency, demonstrate there’s no there there. I doubt many Americans could confidently state what Obama stands for, and it appears from that New Yorker interview that he cannot either. Given the history of the last five years, I don’t think many people are much listening now, anyhow. Outside of war, the only serious tool presidents have is the bully pulpit, and Obama squandered his long ago.
The most impressive thing about Obama’s speech last night was the smallness of it all. The man who promised the country a transformative presidency devoted over an hour to what were little more than minor proposals and gestures to the Democratic base. While Obama mentioned immigration reform he did so only briefly and with little expectation that Congress will pass legislation. More significantly, his address made no mention of the rising national debt and the need to reform entitlement programs that are simply unsustainable. The main takeaway from last night’s address is that Obama has basically given up trying to achieve big things and is likely to accomplish little in the remaining three years of his presidency.