State of the Union

The presidential State of the Union address has become a grand, or at least notable, tradition. Traditional, too, for all its themes and much of its language to be leaked by the White House — a road test, to detect any rhetorical rattles — before taking it onto the track. And, in the couple hours or so before the president leaves for the Capitol, tradition includes distribution of the speech word-for-word. Executive ad libs are optional but uncommon.

So by Monday morning we knew all the proposals President Obama would put before the Congress, sitting in joint session: Immigration reform and a higher minimum wage and extension of unemployment benefits; and aid to education and public works, and research and development and, naturally, the winding down of one war (Afghanistan) and his vision for avoiding another (Iran) and another fiscal crisis (the debt ceiling). And a defense of “Obamacare.”

Pause, here, to note that there was no mention of a farm bill, vital not only to Arkansas farmers and Arkansas consumers but to Arkansas recipients of the SNAP program — food stamps. By the time these words reach print the House likely will have passed legislation that makes changes to producer subsidies and cuts nutrition assistance. The Senate will probably pass it. Neither party especially likes the conference committee version but it’s a bill that both can live with. Yet if the notion of compromise in Congress is not dead we can suspect it will remain on life support for at least the balance of this year. For it is an election year.

Mr. Obama’s report to the Congress was a speech designed as much, if not more, to bolster his party’s fortunes in November’s mid-term elections than to advance a legislative agenda. That, too, is tradition: a president appealing first to his base, targeting the demographics most comfortable with his agenda. Thus, notwithstanding the merits of equal pay for equal work, whatever the flaws of the “path to citizenship,” regardless of the efficacy of K-12 testing, Barack Obama the Democrat was appealing to established or Democratic-leaning constituencies: women, Latinos, teachers. And the uninsured and the unemployed. They also happen to be constituencies that Republicans cannot seem to stop themselves from offending.

A dozen times, or so it seemed, Mr. Obama expressed a hope for bipartisan cooperation. He did so knowing he will see precious little of it. Not only is it an election year, not only does the president remain profoundly unpopular across a wide swatch of the nation, not only are majority of House districts redder than red and hence out of reach for Democrats, not only are a half-dozen Senate Democrats (including Arkansas’s Mark Pryor) in peril and anxious to distance themselves from Mr. Obama whenever feasible, not only are a few Senate Republicans facing opponents to their right — not only all of that but an incumbent Republican membership divided among itself. These are not the components of compromise.

The president put the money quote, then, up top — in the first minutes of a 70-minute oration: “America does not stand still – and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

He meant, yes, governing by executive order. It rankles traditionalist Democrats only slightly less than Tea Party Republicans. But if there was any doubt that Mr. Obama envisions moving his agenda by any means other than decree, and any illusion among television viewers that a handshake across the partisan divide is imminent, the body language of the Republican contingent should have dispelled both.

Tradition (that word, again) dictates that every president be greeted with a bipartisan ovation, even be it lackluster, when he enters the House and again when he departs. This much Mr. Obama was granted. But unless I was looking away his only

remarks to bring genuine across-the-aisle applause were his tributes to the military, his cheer for our Olympic athletes and his vow that the U.S. would forever be Israel’s friend. Earnest, yes, but also — tradition, executive and legislative.

Mr. Obama’s expressed enthusiasm for natural gas as central to U.S. energy independence ought to please leaseholders in Arkansas’s Fayetteville shale. His continuing courtship of economic and ethnic groups ought to please, or not displease, their Arkansas members. Will anything he said change the dynamic of this year’s Arkansas elections? I didn’t hear it.

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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.