Thursday, February 7, 2013

Dueling values at State of the Union -- Feb. 7, 2013 column

For his 1965 State of the Union address, Lyndon Johnson tried something new.
Wanting to reach the largest audience possible, LBJ moved the speech from day to primetime.
At 9:04 p.m. on Jan. 4, 1965, before a joint session of Congress, the president laid out his vision for a Great Society -- including hospital insurance for the elderly, a voting rights law for African Americans, federal aid for education and an extension of the minimum wage.
Not to be outdone, Republicans demanded time for a response, also a first. GOP House leader Gerald Ford and Senate leader Everett Dirksen did the honors.
Within two years, most of Johnson’s proposals were law.
Those were the days. LBJ had just won by a landslide. He knew he had to act fast to get big things accomplished. His laundry list became marching orders for the fattest Democratic majority in Congress since the New Deal.
Shortly after 9 p.m. on Tuesday, President Barack Obama will deliver his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress. He knows he has to act fast to accomplish his goals. He’ll outline a laundry list of legislative priorities. A Republican response will follow. And that’s where similarities with 1965 end.
Obama will face a divided, deeply partisan Congress. He’ll expound on how the Democratic values he talked about in his Inaugural Address translate into policies to strengthen the middle class. If the last four years are a guide, though, many of his proposals will go nowhere.    
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban-American in his first term, will give the Republican response. Rubio is a fresh face and he’s trying something new: He will speak in Spanish and English. He’s expected to offer a view of how smaller government, as championed by the GOP, will help the middle class.
Rubio has a tough assignment – to hit the reset button on a party that fumbled the last election. Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana recently called the GOP “the stupid party” for dumbing down its brand and failing to appeal to minorities. Plus, Rubio has a lot of hype to live up to. He’s glorified on the cover of this week’s Time magazine as “The Republican Savior.”
As theater, the night of dueling values could get interesting.
Obama will use the bully pulpit to promote job creation, targeting education to job skills, reducing dependence on foreign oil while promoting green energy, reforming immigration and reducing gun violence. He wants to increase spending on those priorities.  
At the same time, the president insists he’s eager for a “big deal” on deficit reduction that will end the cycle of government by crisis that replays every few weeks or months.
Obama’s brand is strong among Democrats after his Inaugural Address in which he set out liberal themes for his second term, but he has alienated Republicans. The White House envisioned the two speeches as a package with the State of the Union offering what former senior Obama adviser David Plouffe called “details and blueprints.”
Obama gave a glimpse of Tuesday’s speech in remarks this week to House Democrats.
“The question I will ask myself on every item, every issue is, is this helping to make sure that everybody's got a fair shot and everybody is doing their fair share and everybody's playing by the same rules?” he said.
Next month, Obama is expected to send Congress his budget for the fiscal year that starts in October.
Despite Lyndon Johnson’s legendary success, most presidents fail to get what they ask in the State of the Union speech.  
Between 1965 and 2002, on average 43 percent of the policy proposals contained in State of the Union addresses were enacted by Congress in the legislative session in which the president gave his speech, Donna R. Hoffman and Alison D. Howard wrote in the 2006 book “Addressing the State of the Union.”
For second presidential terms, the success rate drops to 39 percent.
In 2013, the Democratic president’s State of the Union address will be a wish list. The Republican response will be one too.
 © 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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