Alex Massie: Obama’s second term blues

President Barack Obama being sworn in. Picture: Getty
President Barack Obama being sworn in. Picture: Getty
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THE US president prepares to deliver his state of the union address, but with a divided Congress he faces a battle to deliver measurable achievements, writes Alex Massie

BARACK Obama will disappoint this evening. The state of the union address, which the US president delivers tonight, has become a Washington ritual and, like so many other familiar scenes from the American capital’s political pantomime, the build-up is often more entertaining than the climax.

Nevertheless, Obama will sketch a map of his second term priorities. After the sweeping liberalism of his inauguration speech last month, we may expect tonight’s speech to be a drier, duller affair. Where the inaugural focused on social issues, economic bread and butter will dominate the state of the union address. Jobs, jobs, jobs.

Obama’s speech will make the case for a fresh revival of American manufacturing. He will argue that government must help provide American workers with the necessary skills to compete in the global economy. And, perhaps above all, he will make a case for fundamental economic fairness in which, according to officials, “hard work leads to a decent living”. Apple pie and motherhood may also be praised.

Administration officials say this speech should be considered in tandem with last month’s inauguration address. The combination is more powerful than either individual punch, they say. Perhaps so. But few people outside Washington pay attention to these manoeuvres. Most of this intricately-plotted “reveal” will be lost on most voters.

Obama was re-elected despite the still sluggish state of the American economy (though of course, US growth looks stellar when viewed from Europe). But a re-elected president faces problems he did not face during his first term. There’s no longer anyone else to blame. No wonder, at least according to conventional theory, glad confident morning so swiftly fades to gloom. The second time is rarely a charm and a term-limited president is all-too-swiftly reduced to lame-duck status.

Recent presidencies offer some superficial support for this thesis. Watergate crippled Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan’s second term was holed by the scandal surrounding Iran-Contra. Bill Clinton’s presidency was undone by his own priapic sexual appetite and the Lewinsky affair. George W Bush was hamstrung by Hurricane Katrina at home and by chaos in Iraq abroad.

All true, of course. But the record is more complicated than this catalogue of lowlights suggests. Nixon ended the Vietnam War, for instance, while Reagan’s deepening relationship with Mikhael Gorbachev helped open the way to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Even George W Bush’s second term was not quite as disastrous as popular memory might have you believe.

Though introduced by a second inaugural speech of breathtaking, hubristic, ambition in which the re-elected president suggested his mission was nothing less than sweeping all tyrannies aside, Bush’s final four years were, in fact, chiefly concerned with compensating for the mistakes and excesses of his first term in office. Prudence gradually reasserted herself.

So, tonight, Obama will make the case for his second term. These speeches are rarely examples of soaring presidential rhetoric. They are too long, for one thing. A list of domestic policy “priorities” is not the stuff to stir the imagination. Indeed, when everything is listed as a priority then nothing is a true priority.

The state of the union is an annual setpiece that excites Washington but which, most of the time, proves eminently forgettable. Who remembers now that the highlight of George W Bush’s 2005 speech was a call for the privatisation of social security? Quite.

Obama does not lack ambition. The highlight of his first term – his controversial healthcare reform – was secured by his re-election. Now he pledges to move on climate change, immigration and the long-term health of America’s pressured public finances. Pointedly, however, Obama is clear that “we can’t just cut our way to prosperity”. Notably, foreign policy is – events permitting – a second-order priority.

Last week, the House of Representatives, in which Republicans hold a majority of seats, voted in favour of a measure that would require the president to send a balanced budget to Congress. That was a symbolic measure designed to mock Obama, but it also signalled that the Republican party is planning to make the president’s alleged fiscal incontinence the cornerstone of this year’s assault on his past record and plans for the future.

With Congress divided between a Democratic Senate and a Republican House, there is a limit to what Obama can realistically achieve. In his first term, Republicans were disinclined to compromise with the president and, with one exception, there’s little reason to suppose they are any more likely to favour a deal-making approach to opposition above mulish obstructionism now.

That exception is immigration reform. Republicans, mindful that Obama won more than 70 per cent of the Hispanic vote last November, have modified their opposition to a comprehensive immigration settlement that might open a path to citizenship for America’s millions of presently illegal immigrants. Since Hispanics make up the fastest growing segment of the American electorate, the Grand Old Party (GOP) needs to make a greater effort to persuade Latino voters that the Republican party merits their support.

It is a moot point, however, whether a sudden and all-too-convenient conversion to the cause of immigration reform will really persuade Hispanic voters to reconsider the Republican party. It is nearly 30 years since Reagan offered a form of amnesty for illegal immigrants from which the GOP received little electoral benefit.

Even so, it is an effort worth making as, in the long run, Republicans – who have lost the popular vote in five of the six most recent presidential elections – will struggle to retake the White House unless they can broaden their appeal. Marco Rubio, the charismatic, young, Latino senator from Florida, will give the official Republican response to the state of the union address. Rubio, a darling of the right and plausible contender for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination, has been leading GOP efforts to “reach out” to Hispanic voters.

It is always worth remembering, however, that small changes in the American political landscape can have dramatic effects. Obama’s handsome victory last year should not be taken as proof that a permanent Democratic majority exists. Not every Democratic candidate could assemble the potent electoral coalition built by Obama.

The theme of tonight’s speech was previewed by Obama when he told Democratic Congressmen last week that “our economy succeeds and our economy grows when everybody is getting a fair shot and everybody is playing by the same rules”.

The success or failure of Obama’s second term will be measured by his ability to cut a deal with Congress that will lower long-term deficits, reform the tax code, and slow the rate of spending-growth in programmes such as medicare and social security.

In large part these are prosaic, complicated, technocratic matters a long way from the poetry of Obama’s campaigns. But these are the things upon which his second term hinges.

Reagan defined and dominated an entire political era. Obama has the opportunity – and the skill – to be the “liberal Reagan”. Whatever his shortcomings, Reagan helped cheer America up. Obama lacks Reagan’s warmth, but if he really can fix Washington’s fiscal crisis, reform immigration and address climate change, then his policy impact and legacy may prove even greater than the Gipper’s. No-one ever accused Obama of lacking ambition.