The Real Reason to Watch Tuesday's Speech

With the GOP controlling Congress, Obama's State of the Union proposals will be dead on arrival. But there is still one very good reason to tune in.

By Nathan Pippenger

There are plenty of good reasons to approach Tuesday’s State of the Union with skepticism. First, the format itself is ill-suited for great oratory: There are too many applause breaks, too many requisite thank-yous, and too many scattered items on the standard presidential wishlist, which tends to obscure whatever unifying theme the speech might have had to begin with. Second, the speech is usually more pageantry than policy. That’s especially true this year, since most of President Obama’s agenda will be dead on arrival in a GOP Congress. These complaints might explain recent low ratings for the speech, but in spite of everything, there is at least one excellent reason to pay close attention this year.

Sadly, it’s not because the President is likely to repeat the finest moment of any of his State of the Union speeches: calling out the Supreme Court over Citizens United, which so offended the conservative justices that they publicly whined about it and, in Justice Alito’s case, declined to return. This year’s speech is unlikely to produce anything as gratifying as Roberts Court conservatives complaining that something has descended into rank partisanship.

It may, however, produce something quite valuable: a preview of the Democratic candidate’s stance on economic issues in 2016. According to early coverage, economic themes will dominate the speech, and Matt O’Brien goes so far as to label it Obama’s
Piketty moment.” The speech will announce new measures aimed at closing tax loopholes for the wealthy, raising taxes on big banks and capital gains, and using the money to deliver badly-needed relief to the middle class. With their focus on Wall Street and the 1 percent, these proposals aren’t so different from what a hypothetical President Warren might propose—assuming she enters the Democratic primary. But there’s no guarantee that she’ll choose to do so (her latest “no” was the firmest yet), and even if she does, the money and influence are already lining up with Hillary Clinton.

The chief rationale for encouraging Warren’s entry into the race is to move Clinton leftward on economic issues. But Warren is not the only Democrat who can move the debate, and if the next two years are a series of doomed confrontations with congressional Republicans over taxes, Wall Street, and the 1 percent, by 2016 the Democratic base will hardly be in the mood for a centrist approach to economic issues.The combative political strategy that the President will highlight on Tuesday will set the tone for the Democratic primary. A GOP Congress is unlikely to grant any of Obama’s wishes, but in one sense, that may not matter. Even if the speech is unlikely to be a helpful preview of the next two years, it could well offer a clue to the following four—and that’s the best reason to tune in.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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