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3Qs: What’s next after State of the Union?

Robert Gilbert

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama revealed what many pundits considered a modest agenda—one that focused on combating economic inequality and expanding opportunity for Americans. He also urged congressional action on unemployment and immigration reform and acknowledged the deep political divisions that persist in Washington. We asked Robert Gilbert, the Edward W. Brooke Professor in the Department of Political Science at Northeastern University, to assess the president’s speech and its political implications for the coming year.

In his speech, President Obama declared this must be a “year of action.” While he vowed to work with Congress, he stressed that he’ll act unilaterally when he sees it necessary to tackle inequality. Is this a risky move for the president, and on what issues might he take this approach?

In politics, almost everything carries risks but I don’t see Obama’s remarks Tuesday night as being particularly risky. In recent days, Obama’s standing in public opinion surveys has fallen to 42-46 percent approval. For Congress, the approval figure stands at an abysmal 10 percent, an indication that the public clearly has been unhappy with the performance of our sharply divided legislature. Not only are there divisions between the Democrats and the Republicans but also between the traditional Republicans and their Tea Party “colleagues.” So the president’s announcement that he intends to bypass Congress where possible suggests that he intends to provide some activist leadership during his second term despite the congressional divisions. This will excite his partisans and might even impress the independents. Needless to say, this strategy will have to be applied to areas where such leadership is feasible. This means that the role of the Attorney General and the Department of Justice will be significant.

The midterms elections are this fall. Did Obama’s State of the Union speech set the table or draw any battle lines between parties with regard to hot button issues that will be in play as the elections near?

Mid-term elections are problematic for presidents, especially in their second terms. In a president’s sixth year, the losses for his party in both House and Senate elections tend to be substantial. This makes it even more difficult for the president to work well with Congress during his final two years in office. On Tuesday night, President Obama mentioned several times that he intended to “strengthen the middle class” and that he would act alone if necessary to “slash the bureaucracy.”  He also promised to use his authority to “protect pristine lands for future generations” and that “our broken immigration system must be fixed.” These are four issues that might energize portions of the Democratic coalition.

As you mentioned, opinion polls suggest less than half of Americans approve of the job President Obama is doing in office. How does he win back the favor of the majority of Americans—and did the State of the Union reveal any potential strategies?

Polls suggest that a growing segment of the national population sees Obama as a failed or inept leader. His signature legislative achievement—Obamacare—was never well-explained to the people by the White House, and this allowed the opposition to score significant public relations victories against it. The difficulties associated with the actual “roll out” of the Affordable Care Act only heightened public concerns and fueled Republican attacks. So what Obama must do now is to re-establish his credentials as a strong leader. He tried Tuesday night to do this by promising to act unilaterally wherever possible so that he will not be stymied again and again by a divided and contentious Congress. Whether this strategy actually will work is yet to be determined but, in a very real sense, this president has nowhere else to go.

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