State of the Union: can Obama emerge from the shadow of 2013?

US president Barack Obama is set to address Congress to map out his agenda for the year. What’s he likely to say? EPA/Pete Marovich

On Tuesday evening (Washington time), US president Barack Obama will deliver his sixth State of the Union address. It comes at an important moment in his presidency. He has little to show for the first year of his second term.

Thanks to Republican opposition as well as his administration’s missteps and misconduct, Obama ended 2013 in rough shape. The rollout of the Affordable Care Act – known otherwise as “Obamacare” – went badly, and revelations about government surveillance left Americans suspicious of both the Obama administration and the government more generally.

When Obama delivered the State of the Union last year, his approval rating sat at 51%. Today it is at 40%.

This address is Obama’s chance to combat the growing perception that, though he will be in office for three more years, his presidency is effectively over. To do so, he will not only have to outline a clear agenda but also a convincing plan for how to accomplish it. Given Congress’s record levels of legislative inactivity over the past few years, the second half of his task is both the most important and the one he is least likely to achieve.

The speech will centre on income inequality and economic mobility. Obama previewed these themes in a speech last month. He said:

The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe.

That speech, which coincided with Pope Francis’s comments on the injustices of trickle-down economics and the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, helped move inequality to the centre of American political debate. It even spurred Republicans to begin talking about inequality and poverty.

In the State of the Union, Obama will outline his economic-mobility agenda. It includes raising the minimum wage (currently US$7.25 an hour), extending unemployment benefits and making college more affordable. He will also offer a robust defence of the Affordable Care Act, framing it as a key component of promoting economic security for American families.

But the agenda is the easy part. The much trickier task is to convince the American people that any of this is possible. Here, the shadow of 2013 looms long.

Immigration reform passed the Senate but never came to a vote in the House. Instead, House Republicans voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act a dozen more times, threatened to breach the debt ceiling, and shut down the federal government for 16 days. By the end of October Republican approval ratings had plummeted to record lows.

And yet, the opposition’s self-immolation accrued few benefits for Democrats, who were unable to leverage Republican unpopularity into legislative action. At the end of 2013, the American people showed little affection for Congress, the president, or government in general.

Compounding Obama’s problems are the 2014 midterm elections. Impending elections mean Republicans will be less likely to engage in the sort of reckless brinksmanship they displayed in 2013, but it also makes them less likely to grant the president and his party any legislative achievements.

And the midterms themselves could very well lock in Obama’s lame-duck status. Because of the typical make-up of the midterm electorate (older, whiter, more Republican), demographics favour the Republicans. Add to that the number of vulnerable Democratic seats in the Senate and 2014 begins to look quite bleak for Obama and his party.

This brings us back to the State of the Union. It will be a long speech, at times a lyrical speech, but at the end of the day, it will be only that: a speech.

Presidents have made history in their State of the Union addresses before. It was in a State of the Union speech that Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty. But Johnson had on his side large Democratic majorities and an unparalleled mastery of congressional manipulation. Obama has neither.

So while his State of the Union will show us what an effective Obama administration would look like, it is a vision unlikely to become a reality.

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