On Tuesday night, January 21, President Barack Obama will deliver his seventh State of the Union address (SOTU). He will offer a laundry list of initiatives that will be familiar to anyone who watched any of his previous speeches.
If you plan on watching, here's a piece of advice from someone who gets paid to pay attention to politicians: Don't bother.
When control in Washington is divided between parties, the president generally doesn't get his wish list fulfilled. That's usually a good thing, by the way.
Last year's SOTU is illustrative (full text here). Here's a roundup what the president proposed last year and what has actually happened.
Obama: "Both Democrats and Republicans have argued that our tax code is riddled with wasteful, complicated loopholes that punish businesses investing here, and reward companies that keep profits abroad. Let's flip that equation. Let's work together to close those loopholes, end those incentives to ship jobs overseas, and lower tax rates for businesses that create jobs here at home."
Result: His plan to make the U.S. even more uncompetitive thankfully went nowhere.
Obama: "My administration has launched two hubs for high-tech manufacturing in Raleigh and Youngstown, where we've connected businesses to research universities that can help America lead the world in advanced technologies. Tonight, I'm announcing we'll launch six more this year. Bipartisan bills in both houses could double the number of these hubs and the jobs they create. So get those bills to my desk and put more Americans back to work."
Result: It doesn't appear that he got all six high-tech hubs, but he obviously isn't giving up on the government planning scheme because a new one was announced in Tennessee last week.
Obama: "We need to work together on tools like bipartisan trade promotion authority to protect our workers, protect our environment, and open new markets to new goods stamped 'Made in the USA.'"
Result: The Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014 was introduced in both houses but didn't go anywhere.
Obama: "And let's pass a patent reform bill that allows our businesses to stay focused on innovation, not costly, needless litigation."
Result: It didn't happen—legislation died in the Senate.
Obama: "Businesses plan to invest almost $100 billion in new factories that use natural gas. I'll cut red tape to help states get those factories built, and this Congress can help by putting people to work building fueling stations that shift more cars and trucks from foreign oil to American natural gas."
Result: He is not interested in cutting red tape.
Obama: "When we rescued our automakers, for example, we worked with them to set higher fuel efficiency standards for our cars. In the coming months, I'll build on that success by setting new standards for our trucks, so we can keep driving down oil imports and what we pay at the pump."
Result: Yep, the administration has been busy at work on that one, as Congress' input isn't required. Too bad for us.
Obama: "Finally, if we are serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, and law enforcement—and fix our broken immigration system. Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted. I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same. … So let's get immigration reform done this year."
Result: That didn't happen either. Instead, the president unilaterally gave legal status and work permits to millions of people residing in the U.S. illegally because Congress wouldn't act on comprehensive reform.
Obama: "I've asked Vice President Biden to lead an across-the-board reform of America's training programs to make sure they have one mission: train Americans with the skills employers need, and match them to good jobs that need to be filled right now. That means more on-the-job training, and more apprenticeships that set a young worker on an upward trajectory for life. It means connecting companies to community colleges that can help design training to fill their specific needs. And if Congress wants to help, you can concentrate funding on proven programs that connect more ready-to-work Americans with ready-to-be-filled jobs."
Obama: "I'm also convinced we can help Americans return to the workforce faster by reforming unemployment insurance so that it's more effective in today's economy. But first, this Congress needs to restore the unemployment insurance you just let expire for 1.6 million people."
Result: No. The proposal died in the House.
Obama: "Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child's life is high-quality early education. Last year, I asked this Congress to help states make high-quality pre-k available to every four-year-old. As a parent as well as a president, I repeat that request tonight. … And as Congress decides what it's going to do, I'm going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-k they need."
Result: It didn't happen, which is good since federally-funded universal pre-kindergarten would be terrible.
Obama: "Today, women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it's an embarrassment. A woman deserves equal pay for equal work. … It's time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode. This year, let's all come together—Congress, the White House, and businesses from Wall Street to Main Street—to give every woman the opportunity she deserves. Because I firmly believe when women succeed, America succeeds."
Result: The so-called Paycheck Fairness Act didn't make it out of Congress, which is good, as it would address a phony problem and increase the cost of employing women.
Obama: "In the coming weeks, I will issue an Executive Order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour—because if you cook our troops' meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn't have to live in poverty."
Result: Yes, once again, he got this one because he didn't have to go through Congress.
Obama: "Of course, to reach millions more, Congress needs to get on board. Today, the federal minimum wage is worth about 20 percent less than it was when Ronald Reagan first stood here. Tom Harkin and George Miller have a bill to fix that by lifting the minimum wage to $10.10. This will help families. It will give businesses customers with more money to spend. It doesn't involve any new bureaucratic program. So join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise."
Result: Thankfully, congressional Republicans said "no."
Obama: There are other steps we can take to help families make ends meet, and few are more effective at reducing inequality and helping families pull themselves up through hard work than the Earned Income Tax Credit. Right now, it helps about half of all parents at some point. But I agree with Republicans like Senator Rubio that it doesn't do enough for single workers who don't have kids. So let's work together to strengthen the credit, reward work, and help more Americans get ahead.
Result: The EITC was not permanently extended, but it still exists and will continue to waste almost a quarter of its funds on improper payments.
Obama: "I will direct the Treasury to create a new way for working Americans to start their own retirement savings: MyRA. It's a new savings bond that encourages folks to build a nest egg. MyRA guarantees a decent return with no risk of losing what you put in."
Result: This is in the process of becoming a yes.
Obama: "Offer every American access to an automatic IRA on the job, so they can save at work just like everyone in this chamber can."
Result: No?but Illinois is going to do it and other states are looking at it.
Obama: "And since the most important investment many families make is their home, send me legislation that protects taxpayers from footing the bill for a housing crisis ever again, and keeps the dream of homeownership alive for future generations of Americans."
Result: No—and his new idea for reducing Federal Housing Administration loan fees puts taxpayers at further risk.
Obama: "Citizenship means standing up for everyone's right to vote. Last year, part of the Voting Rights Act was weakened. But conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats are working together to strengthen it; and the bipartisan commission I appointed last year has offered reforms so that no one has to wait more than a half hour to vote. Let's support these efforts. It should be the power of our vote, not the size of our bank account, that drives our democracy."
Obama: "Citizenship means standing up for the lives that gun violence steals from us each day. I have seen the courage of parents, students, pastors, and police officers all over this country who say "we are not afraid," and I intend to keep trying, with or without Congress, to help stop more tragedies from visiting innocent Americans in our movie theaters, shopping malls, or schools like Sandy Hook."
Result: No federal action.
Obama: "When I took office, nearly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, all our troops are out of Iraq. More than 60,000 of our troops have already come home from Afghanistan. With Afghan forces now in the lead for their own security, our troops have moved to a support role. Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America's longest war will finally be over. After 2014, we will support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future. If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al Qaeda. For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country."
Result: I would give this a conditional yes, although it'll be interesting to see if it can be maintained.
Obama: "So, even as we aggressively pursue terrorist networks—through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners—America must move off a permanent war footing. That's why I've imposed prudent limits on the use of drones—for we will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence. That's why, working with this Congress, I will reform our surveillance programs—because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated. And with the Afghan war ending, this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay—because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by remaining true to our Constitutional ideals, and setting an example for the rest of the world."
Result: Yes (targeted efforts— e.g., ISIS) and no (closing Guantanamo). And our privacy is still being violated.
Obama: "The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible. But let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed. If Iran's leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions, and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. But if Iran's leaders do seize the chance, then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war."
Result: The battle with Congress over an Iran sanctions bill is ongoing, but Obama has stuck to his pledge to look for a non-military "solution" to Iran's nuclear ambitions.
The bottom line is that where President Obama has had "success" with his 2014 SOTU proposals, it was mostly in areas where input or approval from Congress wasn't required.
The 2015 SOTU will include many of the same ideas, and the president has already been trotting out the new ones (such as "free" community college) in anticipation of his speech.
At least since 2011, when the GOP took control of the House, Obama has not had many legislative successes. With Republicans now controlling the Senate as well, the odds of him getting anything done through Congress are essentially zero. He will, no doubt, articulate a lengthy wish list, but the only items that will become reality are the ones that he can accomplish unilaterally.
A president who can't really do much—and who threatens to veto congressional legislation? To the extent that all reduces the reach of the government into yet more aspects of our lives, that's not a bad outcome at all.
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