President Barack Obama will focus heavily on domestic economic disparity when he delivers his fifth State of the Union address tonight, calling for a modest hike in the federal minimum wage and making time to trumpet the virtues of the Affordable Care Act (despite its warts). The president is also expected to call once again for comprehensive immigration reform (though there is debate about just how loud a call it will be) and suggest solutions for the warming planet, but as has been a recurrent theme of the Obama presidency, there is palpable doubt any of the major agenda items will have much life in the historically cantankerous Congress.
If all that sounds perilously close to Obama S.O.T.U. speeches of the past, that’s because it is.
Although a few proposals aimed at aiding and expanding the middle class are likely to be showcased — including a yet-to-be-revealed effort to help the long-term unemployed, according to a memo sent to supporters by senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer — the night will be primarily devoted to pomp and politics.
“It is entertainment, but it is an opportunity to see the president say something to the American people," said Stephen Hess, a former staffer in Dwight Eisenhower’s and Richard Nixon’s administrations and an adviser to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.
“I would say my hunch is that this will be the least listened to,” he said. “There hasn’t been the buzz, which comes in part from the president’s people sending out cues about how important it is.”
Official Washington may whip itself into a frenzy every year over the State of the Union, but all the theater, oratory, commentary, responses, counterresponses and responses to the counterresponses don't convert rhetoric to policy. The speech will not change the fact that the government remains fractured, and Republicans in Congress — mired in intraparty conflict — are averse to giving the president much of what he wants, even if a political meeting of the minds exists.
Obama’s aides, dispatched to give clues about the upcoming speech, acknowledged as much in their public statements over the weekend. In a midterm election year — when Democrats in Congress expect the president to make a case for their party as much as laying out any second-term vision — the administration has made clear that it will not make the mistake of waiting for lawmakers to move on priorities.
To emphasize the point, the White House announced Tuesday morning that Obama would sign an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10, the same hike the administration and congressional Democrats have proposed for the nation at large. The order would affect relatively few workers at first, since it only applies to new or renewed federal contracts.
“We need to assure to the American people that we can get something done, either through Congress or on our own because what they want are answers,” Pfeiffer said Sunday on CNN.
“(Obama) is going to look in every way he can with his pen and his phone to try to move the ball forward,” Pfeiffer added, referring to plans to lobby Congress and use executive actions, as Obama has done with certain gun-control and immigration measures, and press for voluntary initiatives from business leaders, a strategy that has been in the White House tool kit since early in his first term. “We’re putting an extra emphasis on it in 2014.”
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The buzz phrase around this year’s address is undoubtedly “income inequality” — on the lips of nearly every one of the president’s surrogates in the run-up to the address and the issue that Obama earlier this year called the “defining challenge of our time.” Although various economic policies as well as structural flaws have driven up the disparity between the rich and poor in the last three decades, he has chosen, at least on a rhetorical level, to embrace the cause, more than two years after the Occupy Wall Street movement injected the topic into the national conversation.
Nonetheless, there appears to be little appetite in the GOP for a hike in the federal minimum wage, a concrete proposal intended to start closing the income gap and one embraced by congressional Democrats and the president.
Obama is also likely to tout the economic benefits of immigration reform, walking a delicate line between lobbying for a specific bill and trying not to challenge House Republican leadership, who recently have shown signs of softening their hard-line stances.
Legislation that would offer promise for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants seemed inevitable when the president asked Congress to send him a bill at last year’s State of the Union, fresh off a resounding re-election victory that included solid majorities of Hispanic voters. But the bipartisan coalition that got a bill through the Senate was not enough to push Republican House leadership to allow a vote in 2013.