State of the Union

What to Look for In Tonight's State of the Union

A campaign speech? Or a policy agenda?


Obama's second inaugural address, Bill Galston of Brookings recently said, can be viewed as "the last speech of the 2012 campaign". Like most inaugural addresses, it was long on rhetoric and short on concrete agenda items.

Tonight, Obama the candidate is once again replaced with Obama the president. This will be the first preview of what he wants to accomplish in this second term.

At the moment, that's amazingly unclear. The 2012 campaign was possibly the most information free election in recent history; at the end of it, the only thing we'd really learned was that Obama isn't a wealthy hedge fund manager. So this State of the Union will be particularly important.

Especially since Obama is facing one of the most challenging second terms of any president in recent memory. It's no secret that Obama views himself as a transformative president, along the lines of Reagan or FDR. But it's hard to be transformative on a shoestring. And it will be both politically and fiscally challenging to shake loose new cash for anything that Obama might want to accomplish. The GOP is uninterested in major new spending programs, and moreover, they have public opinion on their side. The public may not want to raise taxes or cut spending in order to balance the budget, but Obama will be pushing uphill all the way if he wants to make the deficit even bigger.

So expect him to name check issues like the environment, infrastructure, scientific research, and education, without promising much in the way of money. If he does announce something large and expensive, that will be big news: a sign that he's willing to take on the GOP and the public's fiscal instincts for a chance at history.

Of course, there are a few signature issues where the President doesn't need money: gun control, immigration and budget reform.

The way things stand now, both gun control and immigration offer "easy wins", like universal background checks and more student visas. But the easy wins are small ball; Obama does not want go down in history as the guy who expanded background checks to private sales. Really transformative change, however, is another long uphill slog. On gun control, it's probably a lost cause--the Supreme Court has pretty much ruled out the kinds of bans that would seriously cut down on guns in America. Moreover, even on issues where the public and the courts are with Democrats, the intensity isn't. Gun owners care a lot about gun laws, and they will vote against people who propose to ban their equipment. Gun controllers do not, as a group, care nearly as much; whether a politician supported a given gun law is at the end of a long list of priorities. So the electoral calculus favors limited or symbolic laws, rather than radical change.

Immigration is trickier. Experts say that the chances for comprehensive immigration reform look better than they have in a long time. But they still don't look all that great to me. It's not polling too badly right now . . . but as Kevin Drum has pointed out, the attack ads haven't started running yet. When they do, I, like Kevin, suspect that "provide a path to citizenship for people who snuck into the country" is going to fall below 50% support. It's hard to see Obama rounding up enough House Republicans to pass anything along these lines--especially since the tradeoff that the GOP will want, in the form of tighter borders and employment checks, is anathema to the same groups that want the path to citizenship. Tighter border controls poll about as well as "path to citizenship", while "require employers to verify that all new hires are living in the US legally" polls substantially better.

So look to see what tone the president adopts on these issues. If he thinks that he can get a deal he likes, I'd expect to see a c'mon-guys-we-can-do-this conciliatory exhortation. If he wants a major deal, but thinks the prospects look pretty shaky, he'll punch hard against Republicans as obstructionist and uncaring. That allows him to salvage some political capital from the inevitbale loss--and gives him a small chance of changing the path of events.

If I had to guess, I'd bet there's a lot of Republican-punching on gun control, with victims of gun violence given prominent seats near Michelle Obama. Immigration is harder to call. I'm hoping for conciliatory, but not too hopefully.

And what about budget reform? Alice Rivlin, one of my favorite budget wonks, is optimistic that the president will attempt something serious on this front. She notes that we really are approaching the point where waiting is dangerous--we don't have to cut now, but we should be making the sort of changes now, like small changes to the retirement age or benefit calculation, that will result in balance in the future.

But Dr. Rivlin is incorrigibly nice, which gives her a certain optimism that people will, like Dr. Rivlin, do the right thing merely because that's what they ought to do. I'm more pessimistic. Like Republicans before them, Democrats have realized that while budget deficits are a terrible thing when the other party is in the White House, cleaving to some bourgeois ideal about living within your means is far too confining when you have the chance to spend some money. With astonishing rapidity, people who used to extol Clinton's deficit-reducing, economy-boosting, Rubinomic bona fides, have settled on a new narrative: that all we need is to stabilize the debt-to-GDP ratio around its current level of about 75%.

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Of course, Obama could buck his party and commit to serious fiscal change: comprehensive tax reform, entitlement reform of some description, a leaner military and some reductions in domestic discretionary spending. But all these changes will be painful, and win him little in the way of plaudits. Policy wonks remember Carter's deregulation and Reagan's 1986 tax reform with grateful awe. But no one else does. Obama wants to be FDR, not the president of Brookings.

If I'm wrong and the administration really is prepared to go to the mat for better fiscal policy, then Obama will use this speech to make the argument to his own party about why it's needed, and how it can be made to serve Democratic priorities. There will be specifics, maybe even a nod towards entitlement reform (though not the sort that conservatives want, of course). If not, well then, he may not mention the budget. More likely, he'll talk about it only in vague generalities.

And of course, look at the tone.The fact is, Obama has already been pretty transformative--Obamacare will, for good or ill, forever change the shape of American government. He doesn't necessarily need a big new program in his second term, and he may well decide that he can't get one. If that's the case, then there's no reason to be conciliatory; he might as well fight, and go down in Democratic legend the way FDR did for his fiery attacks on businessmen and Republicans. That will be a speech long on Democratic wish lists and disparaging remarks about Republicans, and very short on olive branches.

The last area to look at is what he says about the things that are definitely going to happen: the sequester, the debt limit, and the implementation of Obamacare. On the first two, look for tone: is Obama preparing for a streetfight, or sketching the outlines of a deal?

On Obamacare, the most important question will be the specifics. Things haven't been going exactly as the administration thought they would: lots of states are opting out of Medicare and refusing to build state exchanges, two developments that the administration didn't really anticipate. That poses all sorts of development challenges. So does rule-making for situations that the law's drafters didn't really foresee, such as the problems with multi-employer union health plans, which my husband has recently written about.

Obviously, Obama is not going to get into the nitty gritty of implementation. But I'll be looking to see whether he talks timeline and specifics. Does he say that they're on schedule? Does he offer any specifics about how the all this will work? Or does he tout the stuff that's already happened, like the high risk pools and the ability to keep your kids on your insurance until they're 26? The former would be a sign that the administration is confident that they will be on time and have all the wrinkles worked out. As for the latter . . .

Well, the latter doesn't tell you much; as the statisticians say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. They've been staples of Obama speeches for a long time. All it would tell you is that his speechwriters went back to the well more time.

Of course, there's always something that surprises you. And overall, the most important thing is not the policy specifics, which won't survive the legislative process intact. The most important thing is how he answers a question that was posed by Bill Galston.

The inauguration speech, says Galston, "stated coherently and elegantly the ensemble of beliefs that animate the coalition that returned Obama to power.

The question that only the president can decide is whether he's willing to run his presidency within the four corners of those beliefs."

I don't know the answer to that. But I think we will by the end of the speech.