State of the Union


He shall 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. Article II, Section 3, U.S. Constitution

“He” invariably declares the Union to be “strong,” even when it is profoundly troubled; the speech without exception is devoted to “such measures” — a chief executive’s program for the year and beyond, his agenda for the legislative branch, his wish list.

And so he did, Barack H. Obama, President of the United States, in his address to a joint session of Congress, a personal appearance not mandated by the national charter but established by custom, for decades now a television event; and the run-up to this year’s coverage sharing screen space with a fire in California that devoured a cabin and the crazy, murderous Los Angeles ex-cop whose four victims included three police officers, all of them shot to death.

Mr. Obama began by quoting a predecessor who was shot to death a half-century ago.

Guns, gun violence: Mr. Obama had promised to bring it up, and did, but put it near the end of his remarks.

“I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence,” the President began. “But this time is different.”

I wonder. Notwithstanding the recent slaughter of 20 tots in a Connecticut elementary school (and six of their faculty) and despite broad public support for comparatively modest reforms such background checks of gun purchasers and a limit on magazine capacities, I question the willingness of the legislative branch to do much toward keeping guns away from nuts or criminals. It’s easier to block action in Congress than maneuver a bill through it, and with the House controlled by a Republican Party antagonistic toward gun control in most any form, “uphill” doesn’t quite describe the Obama administration’s odds. The Senate? Democrats standing for re-election next year in the mountain and southern states, including Mark Pryor of Arkansas, had to wince at the President’s demand for action.

Pryor already has distanced himself from gun control legislation whether its providence is legislative or executive; his Republican opponent will not be deterred from linking the incumbent senator to the incumbent president and that senator from California, the one from San Francisco, the both of them eager to take away your guns. The other five members of the Arkansas delegation, all Republicans, will offer Mr. Obama’s proposals no succor.

The GOP’s Second Amendment Strategy, I suspect, will be fairly simple: in blocking gun bills, let representatives and senators from the south and southwest, the border states and the plains take the lead; they can take the heat because for them there won’t be any.

There will be heat from both sides on the bulk of the initiatives Mr. Obama unveiled: a $1.75 increase in the minimum wage, which would take it to $9 per hour, and government investment in clean energy, education and infrastructure. None of his recommendations, the President said, would increase either debt or deficit — assertions immediately rejected by Republican voices predicting more taxes, more spending.

The dynamic on another (formerly?) hot button issue dividing the two parties — immigration reform — seems much changed. Mr. Obama’s call for a bi-partisan congressional resolution of the problem occasioned one of the few displays of bi-partisan congressional applause. The transformation, if it is that, is less a shift in principle than a recognition of political reality, driven home by the stunning 70 percent margin Mr. Obama received among Latino voters.

Was it any surprise, then, that Republican elders chose freshman Senator Marco Rubio of Florida to deliver their party’s response to Mr. Obama? Well, they got a surprise: Rubio repeatedly brushing away from his face either gnats or beads of sweat, and then interrupting himself to snatch up a bottle of water and take a gulp or two before resuming. It was a performance destined for endless replay on the political comedy shows, and for parody on Saturday Night Live.

Me, I’d be nervous, too. But I’m not being touted as presidential timber, the GOP’s Great Hispanic Hope. Moreover, Rubio’s address was as devoid of substance, and played as fast and loose with the facts, or more so, than it accused Mr. Obama of doing. And since these Loyal Opposition rejoinders are vetted by the party’s powers, they can’t blame Rubio for its poor reviews.

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