We have been struggling through an exceptionally difficult and troubling period in American public life, with an economy still performing well below its potential and a polarized political system producing dysfunctional governance. Might President Obama’s State of the Union speech this coming Tuesday, building on his more decisive than expected re-election victory and well-received inaugural address, consolidate his elevated political standing and provide a map to a more cooperative and productive policymaking process?
That is too much to expect. SOTU speeches seldom strengthen a president’s hand, alter the incentives of the opposition party to cooperate or oppose, or increase his prospects for policy success. But they can and this year will shed light on how he proposes to capitalize on his reelection and where he intends to invest most of his energy.
Obama still faces a very conservative Republican majority in the House and a Senate prone to holds and filibusters. Differences between the parties on taxes and spending have not narrowed and solutions to the self-inflicted crises surrounding sequestration, the expiration of the CR, and the debt ceiling are nowhere in sight. The best bet is that the months ahead will be as contentious and ugly as the entire 112th Congress.
Yet the election has altered the political dynamic and Republicans are well aware that their strategy of unremitting opposition to Obama as a route back to power has failed. They are at serious risk of becoming a minority party in presidential elections. Dissident voices are beginning to be heard among Senate and House Republicans and issues that once seemed hopeless are now under serious consideration.
The State of the Union speech will give us a better sense of how the President intends to deal with the continuing constraints and new opportunities. That alone makes it well worth the watch.