USC, Article II, Section 3 – 2012 update

In case you missed it, President Obama delivered his third SOTU address yesterday afternoon (NZDST).

As the US Constitution requires:

[The President] shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.

and as political theatre goes, the nearly hundred year old tradition of addressing a joint session of the US Congress in January to deliver the State of the Union (SOTU) address is a pretty good one – well at least for junkies like me.

I enjoy them greatly – even the really bad ones – though they are not often inspiring speeches.

The SOTU is an opportunity for the President to use his position to set out the case for his legislative programme, and then over the next year try to get it passed. Something this Congress will make very difficult. It’s not the same as our Speech from the Throne, which much more clearly states what the government will do.

So why all the attention and bother if nothing much is going to come from it? Politics of course.

Up for re-election in November, yesterday President Obama set the tone for his campaign. At this stage he doesn’t know who he’s going to be running against but the political options before him are relatively easy to figure out.

Of his GOP rivals, only one is any real threat. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul will not win the Republican nomination, Newt Gingrich might, but it’s unlikely. If he does all of Mr Obama’s prayers will be answered and the election will be a cakewalk, not only for him but for down ballot candidates as well. I dream happy dreams when I think of Mr Gingrich as the Republican nominee.

Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, remains the strong front-runner and likely nominee (his machine and money far out-weigh Mr Gingrich’s and these tell over the long nominating fight). Mr Romney’s main weakness in the nomination race, is his main strength if he makes it to the General: he’s a Massachusetts Republican, not all that dissimilar in many respects from Mr Obama, and not likely to scare off independent voters.

Right now, Mr Obama remains in that troubled window where he’s neither so unpopular as to be staring at defeat, nor so popular as to be assured of victory. He needs to prepare to run against Mr Romney, and that’s what we saw him doing yesterday.

For a SOTU the President spent precious little time on foreign policy. But then that’s not surprising. While the US has plenty of foreign policy problems, he is (by modern standards anyway) untouchable here.

To win in November, Mr Obama needs only to remember the first two of James Carville’s key messages in the 1992 Clinton campaign:

  1. Change vs. more of the same
  2. The economy, stupid

And this is pretty much what he declared yesterday, in a robust, combative, and some would say populist, tone.

The President is for: job creation, american manufacturing, innovation and education, clean energy, and sensible regulation of Wall Street. (There’s some good policy in there and some really terrible policy in there too as Matt Yglesias points out.)

He’s against: Wall Street self-regulation, Congress failing to act, politics as usual, oil companies, useless regulation, outsourcing, and not paying your fair share.

No surprise there then. It may not be good policy, but it’s great politics.

What yesterday achieves is a pivot so that he can blame Congress for failure to achieve change, and remain at least in part the champion of the American people against the establishment in Washington DC. He’s maneuvering so that he can run in November against Mitt, and the Republican led Congress. Against a multi-millionaire (Obama’s no pauper either), who pays an effective tax rate of no more than 15%, and a Congress which rabidly opposes the President and reform.

So Obama’s for Change, Mitt and the Republican’s are for More of the Same. Tick box number one.

As for box number two, the economy barely needs mentioning, it’s the frame through which everything is seen at the moment. Unemployment is on the mend, but it’s by no means clear that it’ll grow fast enough to secure the President’s re-election. So for fifty minutes the President talked about the economy, about growing it, and most importantly growing the number of jobs.

Mr Obama wants to make it very clear: Republicans lost you your jobs (see the graph in the link above), and He’s all about getting them back. If Congress won’t act, he will.

Sure the headlines have gone at the proposed tax changes – imposing a minimum effective tax-rate of 30% on those earning $1m or more a year (so yes, that’s Mr Obama announcing he’d double Mitt’s taxes the day after Mitt released his tax returns making him the very convenient poster child of this announcement). But there was much more to the SOTU than just a tax on Mitt.

Teddy Roosevelt famously called the Presidency a bully pulpit (bully meaning “good”, as in “bully for you”). Obama just reminded Republican’s that that pulpit belongs to him, and he knows how to use it.

There are plenty of reasons why Republicans should be worried this year – they were just reminded of the main reason. Obama may not be the messiah the left seemed to think he was four years ago, but he’s a very good politician. Mr Obama is one who always plays the long-game. This speech wasn’t about today’s headlines or tomorrow’s, nor about announcing good policy. It was about winning in November.

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