U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress last year in Washington.Alex Wong/Getty Images
Pundits will parse and dissect every part of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night. Almost none of it will really matter in Washington. There is probably nothing he could say to spur Congress to support his agenda in 2014. But he may be able to shape what will determine whether he achieves much in the last two years of his presidency: the fight for control of Congress.
Cable news pundits endlessly discuss whether Obama can save his presidency. His presidency does not need saving, but it does need a boost. According to Gallup, Obama’s approval ratings are about where George W. Bush’s were at the same point in his presidency. That November in 2006, Democrats won big, regaining control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 12 years.
The big difference between 2014 and the recent partisan landslides in 2006 and 2010 is the standing of the opposition party. In those elections, the parties’ approval ratings were roughly even, but they are not this time. Since before last fall’s government shutdown, the GOP has been tracking about 10 points below the Democrats’ approval rating. Voters are not too happy with Obama and less so with Democrats in general, but they dislike Republicans even more.
State of the Union speeches have not resulted in lasting gains in presidential approval. Presidents also have had middling success accomplishing the goals they set out in their addresses (usually a quarter to half of them). Even then, the goals they tend to choose are already popular. Assuming he sticks with the pattern, there is little reason to think a torrent of legislation will flow from his words on Capitol Hill. And continuing a trend that began with Ronald Reagan, the percentage of Americans watching him lay out his goals will probably shrink from previous years.
Presidential speeches have little influence on Congress and seldom convince voters to change strongly held beliefs. They do, however, help shape the public’s perception of which issues are important. And this is where Obama may be able to help create a environment favorable for Democratic candidates and their political issues come November.
Shaping the midterms
Democratic chances of gaining control of the House of Representatives are probably slightly better than most analysts suggest; despite Obama’s tepid standing with voters, few of them see the GOP as a viable — or even tolerable — alternative. Democrats are defending several Senate seats in Republican-leaning states. Democrats could lose enough races to tip Senate control to the Republicans, but Republicans have underperformed in almost every election back to 2000, and they still have time to ruin their chances the way they did in 2010 and 2012 by nominating tea party zealots unacceptable to general-election voters.
Republicans trying to win tough general elections are shying away from direct attacks on Obamacare.
Remaining above the fray won’t help him achieve anything for the rest of his presidency. Without a Democratic Congress, the rest of his presidency will be a stalemate. Though it will be difficult, Obama — and his White House political operation — should aim high and do whatever they can to help Democrats hold the Senate and regain control of the House.
Obama’s first priority should be neutralizing Republican attacks. Few Americans will dramatically change their views on polarizing matters like the Affordable Care Act. But he can slightly change the debate by emphasizing that the ACA is now in place and that there is a lot more to it than a website. While the law is not popular, it is more popular than repealing it and returning to the previous status quo. Republicans trying to win tough general elections are shying away from direct attacks on “Obamacare.” Solidifying the “don’t repeal, reform” position should help Democrats in November. It would also create problems for Republicans who are trying to moderate for general elections but have to deal with tea party fervor in their primaries.
The president should also emphasize the shrinking deficit. It is bad policy, caused largely by Republicans’ success in cutting needed public investment and stimulus. But making people aware the deficit is far lower today than when he took office undercuts Republican claims they need to hold the budget hostage to rein in out-of-control spending.
Obama should depict congressional Republicans as irresponsible zealots. He would never do that directly. But he could describe Medicaid expansion as a commonsense solution embraced not only by Democrats across the country (including conservative Senate battlegrounds Arkansas and Kentucky) but also by practical Republican governors in deep red states such as Utah and Idaho.
Another way to depict congressional Republicans as out of touch and not on the side of most Americans — in particular, the small sliver of the electorate, mostly white and mostly over 40, who are swing voters — would be for the president to call on Republicans to do things that they will not do but that can be used by Democratic candidates in the fall. He should call for them to extend long-term unemployment benefits, to raise the minimum wage, to invest in early childhood education and to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Finally, since the viewership of these speeches skews toward members of both parties’ bases, he should attend to his own. He should remind Democratic voters — and the women who are swing voters — that he stands between them and Republican-led efforts to curtail women’s health and control their bodies. And while he certainly won’t appease those for whom privacy is their biggest concern, he could assuage activists and liberal donors by announcing some further curtailment of the National Security Agency’s mass data collection.
There is nothing Obama can say that will make congressional Republicans work with him. But he may be able to shape a political environment in which voters will be more inclined to send him the Democratic Congress he needs to move his agenda and move the country forward.