Thursday, January 7, 2016

The state of our union is . . . political -- Jan. 7, 2016 column


The state of our union is strong -- unless it’s getting stronger or is the strongest ever.

Presidents from Ronald Reagan through Barack Obama have used “strong” in their State of the Union addresses to summarize the country’s current state.

It wasn’t always so simple.

On Jan. 14, 1963, President John F. Kennedy packed 66words into one sentence to assess the state of America: “And today, having witnessed in recent months a heightened respect for our national purpose and power – having seen the courageous calm of a united people in a perilous hour and having observed a steady improvement in the opportunities and well-being of our citizens – I can report to you that the state of this old but youthful Union, in the 175th year of its life, is good.”

Ah, the pre-Twitter, pre-Trump, pre-sound bite era, when reasons and context mattered and we had respect for “our national purpose.”

On Tuesday night, President Obama will give his final State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. I wish he’d take a look at Democrats and Republicans, as well as at himself, and state the obvious, “My fellow Americans, in 2016 the state of our union is . . . political.”

An election year is always political, but we’ve become resigned to deferring substantive policy moves until the next president for most of a president’s second term. The State of the Union address should be a time for the president, even one on his way out, to seek common ground and work for the public good.

Instead, political calculations rule.

Obama’s address is earlier than usual because of the primary calendar. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, the GOP’s vice presidential nominee four years ago, will be seated with Vice President Joe Biden on the dais behind the president. Ryan has already announced his goals for 2016.

“We have to have a conservative in the White House,” Ryan told Fox’s Sean Hannity Tuesday night. “We want a mandate election.”

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley will give the Republican response. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rebranded the response as the “Republican Address,” an attempt to put it on a par with the president’s remarks.

And perhaps to launch Haley into her next political phase. Haley, 43, the daughter of Indian immigrants and the nation’s youngest governor, is on the short list of potential GOP running mates.

The opposition party always picks a rising star for the response, although it’s no guarantee of greatness. In 2010, then-Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell gave the GOP response. He was later convicted on corruption charges involving gifts from a political supporter, and is appealing.

When then-Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine gave the 2006 response to George W. Bush, Kaine was thought a likely Democratic VP pick. That hasn’t happened, although Kaine did make it to the U.S. Senate.

In 2007, then-Sen. James Webb, Democrat of Virginia, responded to Bush. Webb quit the Senate after one term. His 2016 bid for the White House fizzled last year.

Speaker Ryan started the year by sending Obama a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature achievement, reverse the expansion of Medicaid and defund Planned Parenthood.

The bill wasn’t about changing health policy; a veto was assumed. It was about how quickly a future Republican president could scrap Obamacare.

“The best way to win the election is to give people a choice,” Ryan said.

Obama also wants to show voters their political choice. He will deliver a nontraditional address with no long list of legislative priorities for the coming year, although there will be some, the White House says. Instead, he will talk about his and Democrats’ vision for the country.

Defying lame duck status, Obama rolled out modest efforts to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.

Obama expects little except opposition from the GOP-controlled Congress, but his year ahead looks like a cakewalk compared with what Bill Clinton faced in 1999.

In the midst of impeachment proceedings in the Senate, Clinton delivered a State of the Union address that lasted 77 minutes and never mentioned impeachment.

“The state of our union is strong,” Clinton said.

A year later, having weathered scandal and impeachment, Clinton declared in his final State of the Union, “My fellow Americans, the state of our union is the strongest it has ever been.”

May we survive politics in 2016 and be so lucky next year.

(C)2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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