Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Obama's SOTU address shows he is no lame duck

Writing at The Nation, John Nichols hits the high points of Obama's State Of The Union address. Nichols' take on Obama's remaining year are particularly interesting.

[Obama articulated] a grand vision, which is worthy of pursuit.

The pursuit will not be easy, however.

This president must work with a Republican congressional opposition that has taken obstructionism to extremes. That opposition continues to seize on every opening to attack and ridicule Obama; on Tuesday, Republicans sought to exploit tensions following the brief detention by Iran of the crews of two small US Navy patrol boats that reportedly drifted into Iranian territorial waters.

The task will be made even more difficult if the president focuses his energies on advancing the fundamentally-flawed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Congressional Democrats overwhelmingly oppose the agreement, as do many Republicans. If Obama squanders his last year trying to cobble together a coalition of corporate Republicans and corporate Democrats to vote against the best interests of working Americans and the environment, he runs the risk of creating deeper divisions—not just between parties but within them—and he might still lose the TPP fight.

The better strategy is to focus on uniting the Democrats behind popular initiatives, such as a minimum-wage hike or initiatives to address the crushing burden of student-loan debt, and to take advantage of election-season jitters to convince vulnerable Republicans to do the right thing. The combination of a bully pulpit and an election year can be a powerful one for a savvy president, and Obama is savvy.

But if it is not possible to build coalitions to do the right thing, Obama has other tools. His increasing comfort with the use of executive orders is significant, as it allows Obama to make immediate and popular policy shifts that will be hard for a successor to undo. The president should be just as comfortable using his veto power. And he should employ every opportunity to make appointments and to fight for the approval of those appointments where it is required.

These are the tools available to any president. But they are only of value when a president is ready to use them, rather than to slip away into lame-duck status.

Obama’s final State of the Union address signaled a determination to use those tools. Progressive and responsible Americans should be excited by this prospect. Barack Obama says he wants to do great things in the final year of his presidency. That’s great news for everyone who recognizes that, while the 2016 presidential race may be exciting, the person best positioned to achieve progress in the country in 2016 is not a candidate. It is the sitting president, who in 2012 was reelected with a popular vote and Electoral College mandate to serve a full four-year term. A quarter of that second term remains, and Obama has indicated that he is ready to make something of it—in Washington and on the 2016 campaign trail—as a president who remains “optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

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