Talk of economic inequality to dominate State of the Union address

Obama heads into prime-time address with high-minded domestic agenda but low expectations for progress

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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.”

Income inequality

Click for more on the president's annual policy speech

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.

‘Inwardly focused’

Even with landmark progress regarding Iran’s nuclear program, early indications are that foreign policy will not be a focus of tonight’s address. Though foreign efforts are often the hallmark of presidential second terms, with the outcome of negotiations with Iran not only uncertain but contentious, no discernible progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and a country weary of war as the administration tries to finalize a new security agreement with Afghanistan, perhaps the president’s team sees more peril than profit in looking abroad.

“The mood of the American public is inwardly focused at the moment, not outward,” said Aaron David Miller, a foreign-policy expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Mostly, the State of the Union will be a chance for Obama to reset the tone from the dour one clouding Washington amid some of the lowest polling of his presidency and to shore up his approval ratings.

“There’s no question though that the speech is given in an election year in which the populist themes that he’s going to propose are largely designed to buck up and inspire his own troops,” Hess said.  

Still, there are serious limitations to what an hour, even in prime time, can do — particularly when such speeches have a well-earned reputation for little more than aspirational laundry lists.  

“Presidencies don’t rise or fall on speeches. They rise and fall on actions, and very rarely do State of the Unions even rise to the level of an exceptional speech,” said Allan Lichtman, a professor of modern U.S. history at American University. “I don’t think you’re going to see anything startling or new. But immigration reform, climate change and the economy are enormously important. These things affect the future of the country and the future of the world.”

The State of the Union was once a much more subdued affair, given at lunchtime to members of Congress and the Capitol apparatus. The event was transformed by the television age to be much more theatrical, re-engineered for prime time. Now with social media microanalyzing the president’s every word and move, as well as the twitches and ticks of lawmakers and Cabinet officials, it is mostly an opportunity for all parties involved to perform.

“Theoretically, the State of the Union is an assessment of where we are and where we should go,” said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “As a lobbying tool, it easily doesn’t meet the bar. It won’t change much.”

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