It’s probably wise not to get too worked up about any State of the Union speech, and this year’s was especially inoffensive. Or, if you prefer, refreshingly so.
President Barack Obama’s fifth State of the Union address encompassed the typical presidential wish list, including such hardy policy perennials as corporate tax reform and a call for members of Congress to commit themselves to bipartisanship, hard work, “rebuilding the trust of the people who sent us here,” and so on. What was most striking about the speech, however, may have been its tone: smooth, pleasant, non-confrontational. It’s almost as if Obama was enjoying himself.
Early on, he gave props to House Speaker John Boehner, though the compliment was personal, not political. Obama’s call for a new immigration system was brief — 121 words of almost 6,800 — and seemed designed mostly not to upset House Republicans as they go about the delicate task of trying to attract Democratic support for a reform bill while pretending otherwise. Even Obama’s critique of Republican opposition to his health-care law was more bemused than angry.
So the standard outraged partisan reaction to the speech, delivered as usual before the speech, seemed especially lame this year. (The official Republican response, by contrast, delivered after the speech by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, was notable for its lack of rancor.) The most serious objection — that the president’s expanded use of executive power sets a dangerous precedent — would be worth consideration if Obama were usurping congressional powers.
But much of what he’s doing is almost laughably inconsequential: Raising the minimum wage for federal contractors, who number a few hundred thousand? Asking businesses to hire more of the long-term unemployed? Reviewing federal job-training programs? Constitutional crises, these are not.
True, Obama’s move to set new environmental regulations is potentially consequential, and the White House has pledged to make 2014 a year of executive action. Yet Congress has similarly promised more attentive oversight, and the Supreme Court is currently considering a case about the president’s right to make appointments during congressional recesses. It’s hard to argue that the system of checks and balances isn’t working.