WASHINGTON—The bad news would not stop coming for President Barack Obama in 2013.
The year started with Benghazi and Obamacare questions, continued with the IRS targeting scandal, the Associated Press phone records scandal, Edward Snowden leaks, public outcry over the NSA's domestic spying, a catastrophic Obamacare rollout—leading to a public apology—and ended with more Benghazi and Obamacare questions. Add in the failure to achieve his top legislative goals—including a gun control bill and immigration reform—and ongoing foreign policy disasters in Syria, Egypt, Iran, and elsewhere, and 2013 couldn’t end fast enough for the Obama administration.
It’s hard to pinpoint which issue has done the most damage to the Obama presidency, but one thing is certain: Tonight’s State of the Union address may be Obama’s last chance to save what effectiveness he has left in his second term in office. The president will use his speech to pivot toward issues such as income inequality and climate change, and away from the issues that led to his floundering approval ratings.
“You’ll hear the president discuss things that he can and will do to help advance an agenda that expands economic opportunity that lifts up the middle class and makes it more secure,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney.
Translation: Obama will try to stem the tide of negative opinion washing over his administration. Kyle Kondik with the University of Virginia Center for Politics told me Obama’s challenge lies not in gaining Republican support—already a lost cause—but in improving his standing with his own party heading into the mid-term elections this fall: “The message for the president for this speech and the rest of the year will be to try to boost his approval rating and excite his own base.”
The White House spin machine has been out in full force over the last week: From a Google Hangout with Obama to proclaiming Wednesday “Big Block of Cheese Day,” the White House is desperately trying to drum up public interest in both the president’s speech and his agenda.
Obama is expected to spend significant time discussing income inequality, which he called the “defining challenge of our time.” Obama will reiterate his support for the Harkin-Miller bill, a measure that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour and index future increases to inflation. He announced Tuesday morning he will take unilateral action to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors in an effort to “lead by example.”
The White House claims the wage hike will boost morale and provide “good value” for the federal government and taxpayers, but many economists believe it will lead to some measure of higher unemployment.
Obama’s speech is also likely to include a renewed push for extending unemployment benefits and immigration reform, which passed in the Senate last summer and stalled in the House. Many observers believe efforts to overhaul the immigration system face long odds in an election year, but quiet background movement may indicate House leadership plans to move forward this year.
Regardless, Obama’s calls for action on various issues are unlikely to influence congressional action in a positive way. But, Kondik said, “rhetoric is one of the few things he can do” at this point in his presidency. Especially given the light viewership of last year’s speech, about 33 million,“I don’t know that there’s anything the speech could do to turn things around,” Kondik said.
So far, 2014 is off to a similar start: As Obamacare takes full effect, even Democrats now acknowledge the program is unraveling without any prospects of a viable solution. “If we had a solution I’d be telling the president right now,” Jim Moran, D-Va., said during a local radio interview on Friday.
Meanwhile, a coalition of Benghazi victims’ family members, former military leaders, and others sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner demanding he create a Joint Select Committee on Benghazi.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, this week called on Obama to use his State of the Union speech to ask for the same. Appearing Monday on Fox News, Cruz said just over a year ago “President Obama said nobody cares more than I do about Benghazi. To the best of my recollection, that was the last time President Obama ever uttered the word Benghazi. If he was telling the truth … then I would expect that tomorrow he would call for some accountability now.”
At least four different lawmakers will deliver responses to Obama’s speech: Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.—chair of the House Republican Conference—will deliver the official GOP response; Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, will deliver a Tea Party response; Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., will deliver his own response; and the House Progressive Caucus will give a response.