SOTU: Soaring Rhetoric meets Political Realities

By Katie Schubert, Senior Vice President

On Tuesday, January 12, 2016, President Obama took the floor of the House of Representatives for the last time as President of the United States. Addressing Members of Congress, his cabinet, guests and the American people with Vice President Joe Biden and newly-minted Speaker of the House Paul Ryan as his backdrop, the President talked for 59 minutes by the official time, but well over an hour if you include the time it took to  schmooze with  Members of Congress who got there hours before for their three minutes of fame--and even sign the cast of a House floor staff person.

We’re just 18 days from the first votes cast in the 2016 Presidential primary so there were multiple thinly veiled references to Presidential hopeful Donald Trump mixed in with just two major priorities: passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement along with an overhaul of the criminal justice system.

And even those priorities were not met with widespread support. If you were following Twitter while watching the State of the Union, you would have seen an immediately backlash to the TPP, with members of his own party coming out against the plan, which lowers trade barriers for a dozen countries. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) indicated that he would wait to take something like that up until a lame-duck session of Congress following the November elections, while Senator Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) just said, “No,” when asked if he would help move this priority along.

So. . . an uphill battle for that. But what else do we have? The criminal justice reform mentioned earlier may seem to have bipartisan support, but even the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-VA) said it could be a challenge.

So maybe check that one off as a resolution for 2016. What does that leave us with? President Obama did not mention gun control despite a Town Hall meeting on the subject just days before his State of the Union Address. Of course, when Mitch McConnell’s lofty goals are to pass appropriations bills on time, you know there are significant challenges to achieving, well, much of anything else.

Analysis of the address from national news outlets (and my Twitter newsfeed) doesn’t leave all hope lost, though. Although Shawn Zeller of CQ Roll Call set us all up for a year of gridlock, we could see the following: new climate change regulations; a cancer moon shot and work related to public health like addressing heroin abuse (more on that in a supplement blog! Kind of like an addendum episode of the popular podcast “Undisclosed,” so make sure you stay tuned. . . ), the above-mentioned criminal justice overhaul, and finally, increasing fees related to the use of federal land—assuming those guys holed up in an Oregon bird preserve go home soon!

Other priorities the President raised in the address were related to fighting ISIL, the Cuba embargo, campaign finance, closing Guantanamo (something he promised to do back when he was campaigning in his first Presidential race), and lowering the cost of higher education.

Overall, this isn’t terribly overwhelming, although he did use the opportunity to tout some of his biggest wins of his presidency, like the Affordable Care Act. Maybe President Obama is just being realistic about the chances of moving anything in 2016. 

Lisa Ellington

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