Reaction to the State of the Union

Obama’s discussion of “better politics” should be backed up with action instead of empty rhetoric

Conley Hurst

In his seventh State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama delivered the expected dose of broad generalizations, feel-good stories, the occasional partisan jabs, and recycled one-liners. Indeed, presidents generally say little of substance during these long-winded occasions. But, though I am not generally a fan of Mr. Obama’s, one point made at the end of the speech did catch my attention.

During one of the strongest “feel-good” moments of the speech, Obama focused on the idea of a “better politics.” According to Obama, a “better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears” and “where we debate without demonizing each other.” I whole-heartedly agree with this statement, and I applaud Obama for expressing it. But real change in Washington must move beyond words and towards action. The President has the responsibility to lead this charge.

Mr. Obama entered office in 2009 with the vision of a post-partisan America. In fact, he tried to stand above the hyper-partisan divisions that evolved out of the Bush Administration and made this the center of his “Hope and Change” Campaign of 2008. During his tenure as president, however, Obama has not proven himself a part of this post-partisan vision. In 2012, Gallup evaluated the gap between Democrats’ approval of Obama and the Republicans’ disapproval. They found that Obama’s second and third terms yielded 68-point partisan gaps, the fourth highest gaps on record dating back to the Eisenhower administration and the highest second and third terms of any president on record. Though approval ratings deal with the perception and not the reality of issues, these numbers are telling. Clearly, Obama has not fostered an atmosphere of cooperation, partisanship, and compromise if Republicans are showing such historic opposition. In politics, perception truly is reality. And the perception of a divisive president only breeds more partisanship in Washington.

President Obama contributed to this atmosphere of partisanship when he claimed that he would not “wait for an increasingly dysfunctional Congress to do its job. Where they won’t act, I will.” Unfortunately for Obama, the American political system frowns upon unilateral executive action. As easy and productive as it would be, the president cannot make law on his own under our constitution. The attempts by the Obama Administration to do just this are numerous: delaying the fine on businesses that do not cover their employees under the Affordable Care Act, enacting portions of the DREAM Act without congressional approval, waiving the work participation requirement of a Clinton-era welfare reform law, etc. Instead of bypassing Congress, the President should focus on breaking the gridlock, reaching across the isle, and passing legislation through compromise.

Hopefully, the final two years of President Obama’s tenure will reflect the “better politics” that he outlined in the State of the Union last week. Hopefully, they will be two years of compromise, of reaching across the isle, of putting everything on the table, and of productive bipartisan action. As Obama said, that is the only way that we can “move this country forward.” That would be some change we can believe in.