In his State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday night, President Obama attempted to invoke the unity theme of his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech and 2008 presidential campaign. However, on Tuesday — as in the past — this hyperbole was not reality-based, but was soaring rhetoric designed to win enough support to enact his agenda. As he outlined his specific proposals, it became clear that for this president, “cementing his legacy” meant getting Hillary Clinton elected and winning back Congress for his party, not accomplishing anything meaningful over the next two years.
It’s been clear from the moment this new Congress sat down and got to work that President Obama was more interested in campaigning against them than working with them. Rather than reach out to them on the issue, Obama immediately threatened to veto a bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline project. The bill enjoys bipartisan support in both chambers and yet, rather than discuss it with new congressional leadership, Obama simply opposes it. He not only opposes this particular project, he threatened to veto legislation that would reform the approval process for future pipelines, without offering his own counter-proposal.
Similarly, even as he pleaded with the new Congress to work with him on his own ideas, he refused to give real consideration to any of theirs. Obama could have put forth a comprehensive tax reform plan that incorporated some Republican ideas and some Democratic ideas. He could have taken on many members of his own party by proposing practical changes that challenged their own ideology. He could have offered a proposal that, while it would never be passed as is, provided the starting point for a meaningful conversation in Congress. This was the approach that Gov. Paul LePage took with the tax reform plan that he presented in his biennial budget; Obama could have done the same at the federal level.
Instead, he offered a tax hike scheme designed to please his base and put Republicans on the defensive. Instead of sitting down and working out a truly bipartisan tax plan that could win votes in Congress, he offered a plan designed to win votes in elections. Instead of showing real leadership to fix a broken tax code that desperately needs reform, he’s setting up a partisan political battle designed to help his own party.
Sadly, it’s become the norm for a State of the Union speech to become a litany of proposals. It’s common for these ideas to be offered without any explanation of how we might pay for them. What’s less common is for presidents to launch a speech filled with implausible proposals for purely political reasons when they’re not even running for re-election. In his 2007 State of the Union speech after his party lost control of Congress, George W. Bush immediately acknowledged that new reality; Obama completely ignored it. Bush challenged his own party with proposals on immigration reform and renewable energy mandates; Obama appealed to his base.
Of course, there will be policies where Democrats and Republicans will be able to come together, and Obama touched on some of those on Tuesday. However, those are largely in areas of international trade, defense and national security. On domestic policy, his ideas were ideologically driven and political, not practical. They were not truly an attempt to unite and govern in an era of divided government, but to divide and conquer in preparation for the next campaign. True bipartisanship requires give and take, and that’s where Obama’s actions have often failed to match his rhetoric.
This week, unfortunately, was no exception.