The nature and timing of Obama’s latest policy shift is extraordinarily hard to understand
The United Kingdom and the United States are divided by more than a common language. They are divided too by the different character of the political systems prevalent in each. They do, however, share a propensity for political theatre. The UK has a major example of that theatre once each year, when the Queen gives the speech from the throne, announcing the programme of her government for the year to come. The United States has another, as each January the President comes before Congress to report on the state of the union.
But, as political theatre, each is rather different. The Queen might pretend that the policies being previewed are hers, but at least her audience knows that what she announces her government will then deliver. The US President needs no such pretence. The policies being proposed in the State of the Union are undoubtedly his, and his alone. The pretence being practised in the SOTU is that what he proposes, Congress will allow him to implement.
It will not. It rarely does, and almost never without amendment. It will particularly not allow implementation this time, when the new Congress contains a House of Representatives with the largest Republican Party majority in living memory and a Senate newly returned to Republican control. In so Tea Party-driven a legislative body, no Democratic president could find majority support for progressive policies, however moderate; which makes it all the more bizarre that the policies laid out in Tuesday’s State of the Union were not in any way moderate by contemporary American standards.
Instead, the President stood before a hostile Congress and proposed that they worked together to tax the richest Americans and surcharge the largest financial institutions to the tune of an additional US$340 billion in order to ease tax pressure on the American middle class, provide greater tax credits for the purchase of childcare, and enable low-income Americans to attend community colleges free of charge.
So: why go that route, and why now? The ‘why now’ question is particularly intriguing, because this renewed Presidential populism was entirely missing from the White House presentation of its policy priorities for the vast majority of the first half of the President’s second term. Had it not been – had Barack Obama the populist been more vocal earlier – the currently embattled President might not now be facing a fully-hostile Congress. The recent mid-term election that so strengthened the Republican Party in Congress attracted only 36.4% of the US electorate to the polls – the lowest percentage since 1942 – and did so because potential Democratic voters stayed away in droves. And they stayed away precisely because the President was playing the conservative bipartisan game from which he is now so visibly breaking. The nature and timing of this policy shift (too little, too late) is then – to put it politely – extraordinarily hard to understand!
So, again, why do it? Partly it seems to be an issue of political framing: setting the Democratic Party up for another populist run for the White House in 2016. Partly it seems to be a negotiating ploy – getting the progressive case in first before the Republican alternative is fully formulated and laid on the table. Maybe too, it is an issue of legacy: Barack Obama wanting to go down in history as a progressive president blocked by conservatives, rather than as an ineffectual president wasted by his own conservatism. And it may even be partly an issue of self-delusion. No American President can go to Congress six years into his term, and say that the state of the union is anything other than strong.
But the reality is that the state of the American union is currently anything other than strong. Deep economic weaknesses (not least trade deficits, stagnant wages, long-term unemployment and entrenched poverty) remain unaltered and unaddressed. Profound foreign policy weaknesses (not least a third war in the Middle East) remain on-going. These are weaknesses that helped Obama to be elected in the first place, and they are weaknesses that will remain long after his term of office is over.
If the two speeches – The Queen’s Speech in June and the President’s SOTU in January – are any guide, David Cameron’s economics and those of the US President are not exactly the same. The two leaders clearly share an interest in easing the costs of childcare and in stimulating more infrastructure investment. But it was the Queen, and not the President, who committed her government to ‘an updated Charter for Budget Responsibility … to ensure that future governments spend taxpayers’ money responsibly’, and to ‘continue to cut taxes in order to increase people’s financial security’. And it was the President, and not the Queen, who seven months later told Congress that ‘we need to set our sights higher than just making sure government doesn’t halt the progress we’re making’, and urged lawmakers to ‘commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort’ by closing ‘loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top one per cent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth’.
In other words, the substance of the speeches diverged in important and significant ways that continue to set the US and UK on to slightly different political paths – a real one in Cameron’s case, an aspirational one in Obama’s. But the two speeches – the one in June and the one in January – did have at least one important thing in common that it is worth noting here. Given the outcome of last November’s mid-term election in the United States, and the Republican leader of the Senate’s insistence, even before the State of the Union Address, that, ‘with all due respect to the President, he doesn’t set the agenda’, it is now the case that neither of the two people making the speeches – neither the Queen nor the President – will actually be calling the important policy shots in the months and years ahead. Perhaps, in this regard at least, right now UK and US politics are not that different after all!