Over the last day or so, I’ve tried to turn off the TV and radio, as pundits of all stripes are undoubtedly applauding or assailing President Obama’s State of the Union Address. Long gone are the days when a president of either party used the address to give a particularly honest state of affairs of our union. Instead, the occasion is often used to rally the Oval Office occupant’s political party or prospects for re-election.
Listening to the president Tuesday evening I was struck by how little he has accomplished over the previous year. Call for an increase in the minimum wage? We heard that last year. Ditto also on calls for equality of pay between men and women, measures to address global climate change and reforming our immigration system. Same goes for his push to increase manufacturing hubs across the country.
Ironically, it took Mr. Obama nearly 40 minutes to reference what we were told was his signature legislative accomplishment: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Once proud to tout the measure that bears his name, the president made only a passing reference to “insurance” reform during his State of the Union Address.
Put another way, the president was unable to account for any meaningful progress with any domestic or foreign policy objective he announced to the Congress the previous year. Why would the president offer a nearly identical set of priorities to the country in 2014 that he had largely done in 2013? He is unable to govern the country by working with the Congress.
Detractors will immediately decry “Republican Obstructionism” or “Tea Party instringence.” Nonsense. Please pick up and read a copy of the Constitution of the United States. Our Framers intended for there to be equality and parity amongst the three branches of government. This is particularly true in dealing with the Executive Branch—the notion of a monarch imposing their will over the populace was a horror they sought to avoid at all costs. Hence, the Constitution explicitly provides that the House of Representatives must untie the purse strings of the federal government—the chamber closest to the people themselves. Mr. Obama should realize by now that Republicans were swept into power in 2010 to put the brakes on what many Americans viewed as an over-reach by the president and his democratic allies in the Congress.
Accordingly, the president’s defiant statement that he had a pen and a telephone he intended to use to circumvent the Congress only illustrates how he has no idea how to govern effectively to enact his articulated priorities. Contrast this to his predecessor in office who Mr. Obama likes to blame for his own inadequacies.
In his first address to a Joint Session of Congress, President Bush spoke of his desire to combat the soft bigotry of low expectations by enacting educational reforms within his No Child Left Behind initiative. After articulating his vision, the president sat down to work. He summoned Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee Chairman (HELP) Ted Kennedy (D-MA), his Ranking Republican (then) Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) along with their House counterparts, House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH) and Ranking Democrat George Miller (D-CA). Did he threaten them to move his bill? Resolve to use his pen and phone to push the initiative forward? He simply asked them to work together to craft a bill that would meet the needs of both political parties without compromising the integrity of his original vision for reform.
Moving No Child Left Behind would require the art of negotiation and compromise, but it also required a president to utilize the vast tools at his command to move the bill forward. I know President Bush personally and he is a genuinely nice man who cares about people. At the same time, he also knew from his days as Governor of Texas how to use the perks at his disposal to woo lawmakers to come around to his way of thinking.
Not even a month after being sworn into office, President Bush invited Senator Kennedy, his wife Vicki, son (then) Representative Patrick along with nieces Carolyn Kennedy, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and former Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s widow Ethel to the Family Theatre in the White House for a special screening of Thirteen Days. Regarding this special screening of the movie that depicted the tension created by the Cuban Missile Crisis early in the Kennedy Administration, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer offered that: “President Bush thought that it would be very appropriate to have the Kennedy family here to watch the movie at the White House where so much of the movie took place.”
Yes, and one can also catch many a fly with a little bit of honey. Later in 2001 President Bush invited the entire Kennedy family to the Department of Justice where he renamed the building after Senator Kennedy’s older brother Robert, who was also tragically assassinated in 1968. The transcript of the proceedings is very moving and the late Senator once told me how he was deeply touched by President Bush’s decision to rename the Department of Justice Building in his late brother’s honor. When I attended a party at Ethel Kennedy’s home in 2002, the photograph of herself and President Bush at the dedication ceremony was positioned front and center on her mantelpiece and she made sure to have me promise to tell the president how much his generosity in re-naming the building for her husband—as well as the photograph capturing the event—meant to her.
No Child Left Behind passed a Congress with two chambers with a differing party in the majority because the 43rd President of the United States knew how to govern over a contentious legislative branch in his first year. Now, beginning his 6th year in office, President Obama appears unwilling or unable to govern with Congress to enact his legislative agenda.
Ask many prominent Democratic Congressmen and Senators in private and they will tell you that Mr. Obama only picks up the phone or sits down with them when he needs something. I have, and their reaction to Obama’s outreach to the Hill is revealing. A nice hand written note or drinks on the Truman Balcony to build and strengthen relationships? No. A weekend at Camp David with the Democratic Leadership and their families to break the ice? Negative.
Before Mr. Obama and his cheerleaders place the blame for his inadequacies at the hands of obstructing Republicans, they might face up to the reality that the president has little equity from which to draw upon from members of his own political party. Perhaps our aloof president should mend fences with Members of Congress by trying to get to know them better rather than demonize them. I suspect if he does, he might have something to speak about at the next State of the Union rather than repeat his promises from the year before.