State of the Union Speech Sets Stage for Political Fights

Last night, President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress in the annual State of the Union speech. He was his usual eloquent and polished self as speaker, and the Congress behaved better than it did a few years ago when at least one member interrupted to call him a liar. Yet behind the civility of the occasion, the president set down his markers to protect his legacy, and the Republican Party now has two years to foil him. It’s going to be an ugly return to the Ford administration’s government by veto.

In his speech, the president laid out the statistics that proved the financial crisis of 2008 has really ended, “turning the page” was his term. Yet, the fact that the recovery has not found its way to the average American household is a problem. He proposed several ways to address that, from free community college to tax hikes on the rich.

On the international scene, he suggested that America is in better shape overseas than when he came into office. That’s a very low bar, indeed. When he came to the presidency, the nation was in the process of losing two wars in central Asia. He has ended those wars without helicopters on the embassy roofs. He asked for a declaration of war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, sometimes called ISIL, replacing Syria with the Levant). Congress might oblige.

The Republican response foreshadowed the battles of the next two years. Or to be more precise, the four responses did the foreshadowing. First, there was the official response from freshman Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA). This version did not mention immigration. Then, Florida Congressman Carlos Curbelo offered what the House GOP put in writing to reporters was “the Spanish-Language translated address of Sen. Joni Ernst response.” When put back into English, the congressman added these words that don’t appear in the senator’s original, “We should also work through the appropriate channels to create permanent solutions for our immigration system, to secure our borders, modernize legal immigration, and strengthen our economy. In the past, the president has expressed support for ideas like these. Now we ask him to cooperate with us to get it done.” So clearly, the GOP is saying one thing to its Anglophone base and quite another to the Latino voters it needs in future — a recipe for annoying both.

The third version of the GOP’s response came from the Tea Party Express delivered by Congressman Curt Clawson of Florida. He didn’t make any gaffes, nor did he say anything that others in the Tea Party movement haven’t said before. Indeed, he was rather accommodating on immigration. “Success for our nation also means embracing diversity — including legal immigrants — and the millions waiting in line legally to begin their own American Dream.” Then he switched to Spanish to state, “We all believe in God, the family, hard work, and liberty. The law must be followed. You are all welcome with us. We are all equal. Of course. Our house is your house.” The fact that the Tea Party felt a need to offer its own rebuttal, however, shows that it still feels that the establishment GOP is a rival, an enemy, a problem.

A fourth rebuttal came from Rand Paul, Senator from Kentucky. It was the same relatively libertarian piffle he usually offers. “Before I ran for office, I practiced medicine for nearly 20 years in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Liberal elites fly over my small town, but they don’t understand us. They simply seek to impose their will upon us — from what insurance we can buy, to what light bulbs we can use, to how we generate electricity.” The fact that electricity gets generated in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is down to the Tennessee Valley Authority, a massive government development program for the rural residents of the area. The TVA actually has an office in Bowling Green itself, but those facts get in the way of his Ayn Rand rugged individual myth. All the same, the libertarian-ish faction of the GOP ate it up while despising the party leadership.

And that’s why nothing is going to get done in Washington. Nothing with the president’s input will get enough votes from the various factions of the GOP to pass Congress. And anything that does pass will be a direct attack on the president’s achievements. He will veto any such legislation. And the GOP doesn’t have to votes in either house to override a veto. Gerald Ford was faced with a heavily Democratic Congress after Watergate, and he vetoed 66 bills. Congress could only override 12 of those. Mr. Obama will be aiming for that record.