FEBRUARY 17, 2013
M. Serajul Islam
President Obama gave his fourth State of Union address last Tuesday, his first of his second term. With the elections out of the way, the President’s address was a more confident one. The Constitution does not require the President to make a personal appearance in Capital Hill to address a joint session of the US Congress. It merely mandates that the President must “from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
President George Washington performed this constitutional obligation through annual appearance in the Congress. His successors instead sent written statements to the Congress till 1913 when President Woodrow Wilson re-established personal appearance in the Capital Hill to address both Houses of the Congress for his State of the Union Address. These days, the State of the Union address is watched by a large number of Americans; 40 million of them watched his Tuesday’s address live on TV. The address is what its very name suggests; it allows Americans to know the health of the country; the problems facing it and the way the President as head of the executive branch of the government, intends to tackle the problems. It is also a mechanism through which the President encourages the Congress to legislate to fulfill his agenda.
In this year’s address, President Obama underlined this necessity of cooperation between the executive and the legislature at a time when the need of such cooperation was brought home to every American with the fiscal cliff hanger that the country faced just after his re-election; a crisis that has only been avoided when the White House and Congress reached a temporary compromise early in the year with a lasting agreement yet to be negotiated between the White House and the Congress. He used a historical reference from President John Kennedy’s State of the Union address 41 years ago to underline the importance of such cooperation. In that address, President Kennedy had reminded the legislators “that the constitution makes us not rival for powers but partners for progress….it is my task to report the State of the Union- to improve it is the task of all.” A confident President Obama who won re-election in the end easily after the media made it look like he was in danger of losing, made a strong case before the Congress and the nation and left the ball to move the country forward in the court of the legislators.
The economy was the President central theme upon which he built his address. He informed the nation that if he receives the “partnership” of the Congress, he could lead the country back on rails with the economy that he said was showing very positive signs of recovering from its worst recession for many decades. In fact, he articulated the achievements of his first term in economic recovery in the second paragraph of his speech. He said “after years of grueling recession, our businesses have created 6 million jobs. We buy more American cars than in last 5 years and less foreign oil than in last twenty. Our housing market is healing, our stock market is rebounding and consumers, patients and homeowners enjoy stronger protection than ever before.”
The President not just underscored that America is stronger than when he assumed power, he also made it abundantly clear that he would be making the American middle class the major focus of his second administration. He stated clearly that while corporate earnings have reached an all time high, the minimum wages have not kept pace with it. He therefore announced a raise in minimum wages to US$ 9 an hour. He also addressed the crucial agenda of fiscal deficit. He said that his first administration has been able to work with Congress and reduce the deficit by S$ 2.5 trillion “mostly by spending cuts but also by raising taxes on the wealthiest 1% of the Americans.” He underscored that the US$ 4 trillion that the economists have said is essential for the economy to stabilize would need bipartisan support of the Congress to his administration and warned that unless that support is forthcoming, US 1 trillion cuts in federal spending would automatically take effect that could “devastate priorities in education, energy and medical research.”
The President also spoke on manufacturing, Medicare, immigration and now the most emotive issues of American politics, gun control. All these issues except gun control are ones with which the President had gone to the electorate and won their endorsement. The gun control issue became a national one with renewed emphasis after the shooting at Newtown, Connecticut on December 14th , where a young man gunned down 26; mostly school children in the elementary classes that touched the soul of most Americans expect the cold hearts of the gun lovers, the gun industry and the National Rifles Association (NRA). On gun control, the President strongly sought variety of new legislation aimed specifically at “military style assault weapons.” The President called upon the Congress for swift action on immigration reform that went down with the country’s large immigration population and ever growing whose influence in US’s politics was quite evidently underscored in the last Presidential election.
The President spoke on foreign affairs with significant emphasis devoting full 15 paragraphs of the subject. He said 34,000 combat troops will return home from Afghanistan to bring to an end USA’s longest ever overseas war. He assured that the end of the war would not mean end of US involvement in Afghanistan where America would remain engaged in “training and equipping Afghans so that the country does not slip into chaos and counterterrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of Al Qaeda and their affiliates.” He also spoke on drones; on Iran where he underscored the need for diplomacy; on containment of North Korea; and trade agreement with Europe. Unfortunately, his emphasis on foreign affairs did not give Middle East and the need to jumpstart the Palestine peace process the importance that many outside the United States expected. The underlying theme of his foreign policy references was that the United States would not be willing anymore to fight someone else’s war abroad.
Florida’s Senator of Cuban origin and the rising star in the party and a potential Presidential candidate for 2016 Marco Rubio who gave the Republican response to the President’s address criticized it on well known party lines. He said that the President’s agenda will end in more government spending that will enhance the federal deficit that in turn will push the country into continued recession. He tried to answer the charge against the Republican that it is a party of the wealthy by referring to his own humble back ground and accused the President for having an obsession “for raising taxes.” The Senator’s rebuttal was weakest when he said the way to deal with violence is not through weakening the “rights of law abiding Americans” given by the Second Amendment when speaking on the President’s emphasis on gun control but failed to give his Party’s details on how to respond to tragedies such as the one in Newtown. Whatever the Senator said was eventually made irrelevant by his “first truly embarrassing gaffe of his national career” when he turned to a bottle of water to deal with a case of dry mouth.
The President will now take his national agenda to the people in the same way he led his successful re-election bid by touring the country over the next few weeks. America is now on strong rebound. Hence, the President is expected to receive the same positive response as he did while on election trail that in turn is likely to help him in putting pressure on the Congress on a host of issues on the economy, governments spending and cuts , healthcare and immigration. Early indications after the President State of the Union address are that he would have a more comfortable and successful second term with the Congress than he did in his first.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador and Chairman, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies