If there is one thing consistent about President Barack Obama, it’s his ability to defy the odds. His nomination over Hillary Clinton in 2008 and his eventual election as president made history. His seventh State of the Union speech, delivered on Tuesday, clearly showed his intention to resist any lame-duck status as he enters the final stretch of his presidency.
The State of the Union speech is an occasion for the president to tout his achievements and outline a path for the coming year. It is an ambitious wish list coupled with the hope—and maybe the possibility—of actually getting things done. This year’s speech was no exception.
The difference between this year’s speech and Obama’s earlier addresses was the president’s tone and passion. For many of Obama’s early supporters, the passion seemed to have dissipated since his 2012 re-election. The 2014 mid-term election drubbing to the Republicans indicated that the presidency was about to enter the predictable lame-duck status. Many referred to Obama’s last SOTU address as accomplishing very little in terms of concrete actions.
Just like his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama is now facing a Congress led by the opposition party in his final two years in office. By the midterms, all the talk about legacy was beginning to be relegated to the verdict of the historians, with the presidential sweepstakes soon to begin. While the usual post-election platitudes were uttered by both the president and the Republican leadership about compromise and cooperation, no serious observer took them seriously. Lame-duck status had arrived.
Then a series of events in November and December occurred, and Obama began to sound like the Obama of 2008. On immigration, he chose to use an ambitious executive order to grant relief to some undocumented immigrants. He also concluded a climate change agreement with China, making it possible for the world’s two largest economies to agree on something vital. His sanctions strategy regarding Russia’s behavior in Ukraine was beginning to have an impact. Finally, Obama used skillful diplomacy to reinstate diplomatic relations with Cuba, with the hope that someday, the 50-plus-year trade embargo would come to an end.
The State of the Union (SOTU) address can be considered an institutionalized “bully pulpit” for the President of the United States. It is delivered yearly on the last Tuesday in January. As expected, the President forcefully made his case for new proposals to Congress before a primetime television audience.
President Obama’s speech was delivered in the midst of low approval numbers (43 percent), and after what many have termed 2013--Obama’s annus horribilis. Beginning the sixth year of his presidency with his Democratic Party bracing for a potentially tough mid-term election cycle, it is fair to speculate about whether Obama is already facing a premature lame duck status.
For those of us north of the border, we tend to follow the SOTU with keen interest, but very rarely expect to see Canada in the forefront. The battle over the Keystone Oil pipeline project is of interest, but judging from the President’s general statements about U.S. energy, Canadian officials were not given any indication of a decision coming soon. The President spoke of the progress made due to his energy policies, the rising importance of renewable energy sources, and stated emphatically that “climate change is a fact”. For the opponents of Keystone, these comments were likely encouraging. For the proponents, it seems the wait is not yet over.
President Obama’s Inaugural Address and State of the Union speech have one thing in common. The emphasis is on jobs and America is changing. Its demographics clearly showed that the electoral map favors the party that is more attuned to minorities, women’s rights and the youth. Its social fabric is being tested regarding gay marriage, gun control restrictions and the possible legalization of marijuana. The economic picture is transforming itself as the U.S. sees energy self sufficiency on the horizon as it actively searches for expanded markets for exporting its goods. Finally, the interminable debate around the debt and annual deficits will go a long way in defining the role of government for future generations.
Canadians observe the U.S. political landscape with interest, and sometimes, with bewilderment. They see the Democrat and Republican parties stuck in political gridlock, and conclude that America still holds to a status quo that is out of tune with new realities. Yet, this is far from accurate, suffice it to say that America has made great strides in many areas that affect our lives north of the border. We must take note.
Canada and the United States form the largest commercial partnership on the planet. And while trade flows have generally stagnated in the decade since 9/11, Canada still sends more exports to the U.S. than any other country (over 70 percent). My home province of Québec sent 68 percent of its exports to the U.S. in 2011; in the state of New York alone, we exported $7 billion of goods compared to $2.4 billion in China, $1.5 billion to Germany and $1.4 billion to France.
On a night where President Barack Obama addressed government investments, gun control and a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, the need to overhaul the U.S. immigration system commanded five paragraphs in Tuesday’s State of the Union speech. The President said it is his responsibility to work toward a government that “encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation of ours.”
The President seized on his first State of the Union since winning reelection to reiterate the details of his immigration reform plan, following broader remarks given two weeks ago in Las Vegas. While he focused on creating a pathway to citizenship for the 11.5 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S., the President also conceded that increased enforcement must be part of the compromise to get legislation through congress. “Real reform,” the President stated, “means strong border security, and we can build on the progress my administration's already made, putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years. “
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who was a last-minute addition to the bipartisan Gang of Eight, also addressed immigration—in English and Spanish—in his Republican rebuttal immediately following the president’s speech. “We can also help our economy grow if we have a legal immigration system that allows us to attract and assimilate the world’s best and brightest. We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally. But first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.”
While Senator Rubio has pledged his support for immigration reform, including a pathway citizenship, some of his key Republican colleagues have voiced strong opposition against any kind of reform. Still, the majority of Americans support a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented according to a Quinnipiac University survey, giving President Obama critical momentum heading into his second term.