The State of the Union address is required by the Constitution, but in recent decades, it has become such a useful tool for presidents that it could well have evolved spontaneously to serve the executive branch. Last night, President Obama delivered his address and used it to do some landscaping of the political battlefield. His objective was to box the Republican Party in and diminish its room to maneuver. It appears he succeeded.
The general consensus among the pundits is that Mr. Obama has moved to the left as his second term begins. That is accurate but secondary. Of primary importance is keeping the Republicans in Congress playing defense and to let their internal divisions widen. That way, he will be able to realize his objectives, regardless of the legislative approaches taken. As an example, consider what he did with the health-care issue. What he wanted was universal coverage. Whether that meant an individual mandate or a single-payer system was immaterial to him. He had his preferences, no doubt, but the destination was vastly more important than the path traveled. The important thing is to control the agenda.
So last night, he laid out a leftish wish-list of legislative goals: guncontrol, infrastructure spending, focus on climate change, immigration reform, voting rights. The Republicans now must address these issues rather than the issues that they care so much about — abortion, tax cuts, defense spending. They will, most assuredly, pass bills in the House related to these matters, but by and large, they will have to address the president’s list. That forces a dilemma upon them. Do they fight the proposals or work with them? For four years, they resisted everything the president endorsed, and he still got re-elected. If they work with his ideas, though, they run the risk of making him look successful.
In the official response, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida did a decent job in articulating reasonable disagreements and a different approach to problems. He appears to have handled the situation better than some of his predecessors, for instance Bobby Jindal and Mitch Daniels. Yet a response is never going to have the same impact; it is a reaction.
Damaging the GOP further was the Tea Party’s response offered by Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. His address was only webcast, so few people saw it compared to the other speeches. However, that the GOP had two responses goes right to the heart of the party’s problems. It is disunited. While the president looks, well, presidential, the Republicans look like a squabbling mob unsure of itself. In politics, that can prove disastrous.
The Republican Party lost a presidential election they maintain they could have won, but the truth is that their message alienated a significant portion of the electorate, and they are going to have to change. Their current confusion stems from the conflation of conservative values with policies, strategies and tactics. Values can not change, but everything else can — indeed must. While Senator Rubio explored a way forward for the party,’s speech indicated that others in the Republican Party still look backwards to their future. The longer these divisions persist and widen, the better for the president. Last night’s speech was designed to help that along.