Alex Massie

An Unexpectedly Important SOTU Address

Text settings

Of all the misunderstood phrases popular in Washington, one of the most frequently cited is Teddy Roosevelt's observation that the Presidency is a bully pulpit. This is often, perhaps even usually, understood as an expression of Presidential power. When the Commander-in-Chief speaks, the country listens and when he decrees that something must be done, Washington and the electorate can be intimidated into signing up for the President's agenda.

But that's not how Roosevelt meant the term. Bully was one of T.R's favourite words and he used it simply to mean superb or excellent or grand. The difference matters because it reveals the limits of Presidential power. And as we have seen even when the President's party controls the House and Senate the President cannot dictate terms to Congress.

Barack Obama might be more popular than his Democratic colleagues in Congress but tonight's State of the Union address is only an excellent platform from which he hopes to reassert his authority.

These have been chastening days for Democrats. Losing the Massachusetts special election was more than careless; worse, from their perspective, has been the panicked reaction to it. No wonder a new poll finds the party five points behind the GOP in the generic ballot. Why should voters be enthused by a party that seems terrified of, or simply incapable of, enacting its own agenda?

Not that the President has helped. The announcement of a "spending freeze" was a gimmick that cannot impress anyone other than Broderist centrists at the Washington Post. Why so? Because a spending freeze than only applies to 17% of the federal budget is not a spending freeze armed with either teeth or credibility. 

Worse from, again, a Democratic perspective, this minor act of budgetary restraint implicitly concedes ground to a Republican talking point while doing very little - and asking nothing of Congress or the people - to address the genuinely serious long-term fiscal problems the United States faces. If Democratic claims about the cost-savings promised by their health care plans are correct (and who knows, perhaps they are!) then a more serious party would pass its own damn health care bill.

So the base is demoralised and reasonably so. What a difference a month and a single vote makes! Tonight, then, Obama faces a brace of challenges: lift his party's spirits and reassure the wider electorate that he has the energy, the vision and the bottle to fight for his party and his Presidency. He must preach to the true believers, but he cannot only preach to them.

Had health-care passed last month everything would look very different. But it didn't and now the White House looks and feels weak. Obama cannot bully Congress, but he might inspire it. That's one of the things the Presidential pulpit is supposed to grant. It's not over yet but Democrats looking for direction from the White House are jittery. That alone spells trouble.

Event then, mind you, a speech is only a speech. Obama's given many fine addresses and with each fresh speech the gap between rhetoric and action becomes clearer. His communication skills are subject to the law of diminishing returns just like everything else. So the SOTU needs to be good (for tomorrow's headlines and to correct the sense of drift) but it's only a first, if necessary, step towards regaining the initiative.

UPDATE: Relatedly, I've a piece on the uselessness of the Senate and its "aggregation of nincompoops" up over at Foreign Policy.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleInternational