The president’s State of the Union (SOTU) message next Tuesday will tell America much about the next four years.
After his successful two year battle over Obamacare, the past two years have seen the legislative process develop into a stalemated cat fight between the president, aided by his party’s majority in the Senate, and the Republican House. The absence of cooperation has prolonged the fiscal crisis and slowed the recovery. The American people were the losers.
The president’s popularity has rebounded nicely from the pre-election lows. He enters his second term in a strong position to lead the Congress out of its warfare mode into a solution-searching mode. The Republican House lacks his popularity, but remains adamantly opposed to many of his programs, especially his budget policies.
The SOTU is not the be-all, nor the end-all, for the President and his programs. It will, however, provide pretty good clues as to how he plans to proceed for the next four years.
If he decides to offer cooperation with the Congress, and a pledge to provide the badly needed persistent presidential leadership on the thorny problems that confront the country today, there is a chance to move the legislative process towards solutions instead of stalemate. Even partial, temporary solutions are better than gridlock.
On the other hand, if he decides to stay on the campaign bus, there will be more trouble ahead. If he directly challenges the House, and demands his programs or none, the public can expect more dreary years of stalemate.
The Republican House is as convinced of the soundness of its positions as is the President of his own. It reacts badly when it thinks it being bullied. If challenged, it has powerful enough weaponry to prolong the current stalemate for at least two, and probably four more years.
Therefore the president would well advised to be nice to the Congress in the SOTU. He does not have to abandon any of his positions, nor to capitulate to the House. He should, instead, offer to work with both houses of Congress to solve jointly the country’s problems. He should start with the easier stuff where the parties have some similarities in position, like immigration, energy, and national security. The hard stuff, like budget policy must be included, but that fight does not have to be the centerpiece of the SOTU.
One area in which little progress has been made in the first term is trade. It is of enormous interest to the House. The president now seems to want both a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and a Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA). Emphasis on the two proposed trade agreements would be a relatively easy way to attract the House’s attention. It could build a sense of cooperation, and, eventually, win new friends for the president.
Making nice won’t suddenly turn the Capitol into a quivering bowl of comity, but, especially in difficult times, nothing good happens without presidential leadership. Leadership includes more than just a vision of the country’s future. Leadership also includes finding all the ways, however inelegant, of moving toward the goal.
President Reagan was not a centrist type, but he knew how to lead, when to fight, and when to concede. The same may be said for President Clinton. President Obama can choose the hard way and fight all the way through the second term, or he can try a little Reagan-Clinton charm, beginning with the SOTU.