Xenia Wickett
Head, US and the Americas Programme; Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs
President Obama’s State of the Union address called attention to many of his flagship policies – but it remains unclear if anything has a chance to get past partisan gridlock.
Barack Obama arrives to deliver the State of the Union speech before members of Congress on 20 January 2015. Photo by Getty Images.Barack Obama arrives to deliver the State of the Union speech before members of Congress on 20 January 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

When President Bill Clinton lost control of both houses of Congress in 1994, his next State of the Union address took a conciliatory approach, focusing on areas of common interest where he and the Republicans could take at least small steps forward. Barack Obama yesterday took the opposite approach. Instead of seeking conciliation with the opposition, he has planted his flag in the ground and declared war on the Republican agenda. Despite calls from both sides to work together, what is clear is that neither will do so, unless it is on their own wish list. This antagonistic approach will stymie much needed progress on domestic issues in particular, from the economy to inequality, education, infrastructure, immigration and the environment.  

President Obama took a more assertive approach for three principal reasons. The first is his legacy. With only two years left in his presidency, he is looking to the future. It is clear from this speech that he hopes to see that legacy spelled out in America’s economic revitalization and, in particular, in ensuring a fair distribution of this wealth to the middle class. He used this opportunity to define his own narrative for the success of his presidency and to lay out his priorities for his final two years.

Second, Obama feels that he has repeatedly, from the start of his presidency, tried to reach out to Republicans and find a middle ground. And in return, he has been soundly rejected and condemned; he has not been met halfway. Thus, from his perspective, any attempts at conciliation on his part will be treated by the Republicans as a concession rather than the beginning of a process of compromise. Under those circumstances, there is no benefit to him in trying.

Third, the speech allowed the President to influence the public discourse; to provide a narrative to which not just the Republicans but the next Democratic contender for president will have to respond. Over the past two weeks, President Obama has previewed many of his new initiatives. By selling his ideas first to the American public, and building support there, he is hoping to make it tough for the opposition to push back against them. He is also betting that this may force his own party to address his priorities even after his term ends.

This State of the Union speech included a number of domestic objectives that may achieve public support, but have already been dismissed by Republicans in Congress. President Obama made clear that the priorities for the future remain first and foremost economic equality (through such initiatives as higher taxes for the wealthy and for very large institutions, free access to community college and better child care), followed by environmental and security issues (especially cyber security and anti-terrorism).

Outlining these domestic priorities also allowed the president to put the onus back on the Republicans. On taking control of the Senate as well as the House in the November midterms, the Republican Party knows that it must be seen by the American people to govern effectively. President Obama has stated clearly that he will veto Republican priorities (such as approving the Keystone XL pipeline, repealing the ‘Obamacare’ legislation and instituting more restrictive immigration policies), and instead has called on the Republicans to respond to his agenda. The Republican leadership in the House and Senate will have to decide whether they can stomach some of Obama’s priorities in order to get things done, or run the risk of being seen as the party of obstruction in the 2016 elections.

There are, however, some elements of the speech on which the two parties could come together, particularly in the foreign policy arena. President Obama emphasized his desire for Congress to give him Trade Promotion Authority which would allow him to more effectively negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a trade agreement with mostly Asian nations) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (a trade agreement with Europe). Without it, both of these agreements – strategic priorities for the administration – will be almost impossible to achieve.

Obama also asked Congress to give him fresh authority to go after Islamic State − though he has stated that he is not required to get that authority (he continues to use that granted to the president immediately after 9/11), it would send a strong message that the US is coming together, across the political divide, to tackle this threat.

These are both areas on which the Republicans and Democrats could and should come together.  But, given the combative nature of much of the rest of his speech, it is likely that for the foreseeable future the only thing the parties will be able to agree on is intransigence.

The next two years will continue to be characterized by political partisanship, further intensified by the election cycle. President Obama will focus on his long-held agenda of mitigating inequality, supporting environmental objectives and finding a new way of leading internationally. With a fractious Republican Party and a diverse and broad group of Republican candidates for president vying for primacy, the opposition is unlikely to be able to respond with a single voice (there were at least five Republican responses to Obama’s State of the Union rather than the typical one). While there could be some real areas of achievement still to be realized (not least with regards to Iran or trade) any progress between now and 2017 will be despite Washington rather than because of it. And that is very much America’s, and the world’s, loss.

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