Grassroots Commentary

The President’s Chestnuts Speech

Bill Franklin · Feb. 3, 2014

The duties of the President, according to Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution, include:

He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient…

In the years since George Washington gave the first State of the Union (SOTU) address, although it wasn’t called that until FDR used the term in 1934, it has remained each President’s choice to decide how to comply with this constitutional requirement.

Both Washington and his successor, John Adams gave their addresses in person. Jefferson, the third President, undoubtedly aware that this constitutional provision was modeled after the British Monarch’s “Address from the Throne,” thought it too “kingly” for the American executive to stand above the legislature and lecture it. His 1801 SOTU was dispatched in writing to Congress to be read by a clerk.

Jefferson’s precedent continued for 112 years until Woodrow Wilson, who believed it impossible that anyone could ever hear too much from him, including Wilson himself, resumed the SOTU delivery in person, and it has continued regrettably so since 1913.

The audience, as originally envisioned in the Constitution, is Congress. The requirement, as worded in the Constitution, was a marginally significant housekeeping formality. Yet in the years since Wilson, particularly in the era of television, presidents have used the occasion to expand the SOTU speech to a national audience. They have changed its purpose from a minor housekeeping duty to a major political stump speech replete with applause-evoking lines inserted to stir the voter base. Televised pre- and post-speech analysts augur meaning from the speech apart from its words. Next-day op-ed essays opine polar opposite conclusions of the same speech. And television statisticians collect and parse data to determine how many listened to the presidential grandiloquence. Their findings? SOTU television ratings have been on the decline for 20 years. Obama’s television audience this past week was the smallest over that period.

I read the text of his speech and watched a few video clips of parts of it. Obama had nothing new to say. But in the words of Charles Krauthammer, he delivered his tired ideas with conviction.

I would call it the chestnut speech. There were so many old chestnuts that were shown it was almost embarrassing. He brought out stuff from last year that went nowhere.

Little wonder. A recent Washington Post-ABC News shows that fully 63% of Americans have either little to no confidence that Obama will make the right decisions, half don’t believe he is trustworthy, and 52% believe Obama does not understand the problems of people like them. His disapproval rating stands currently at 50 percent, with 41 percent disapproving strongly – only 23 percent support him strongly.

The speech trotted out Obama’s usual bromides, among them his latest red herring deflection – inequality. He observed that corporate profits and the stock market have enriched those at the top, but “inequality has deepened … upward mobility has stalled.” An odd statement. We are five years into the Obama presidency, a good deal of which he spent blaming George Bush for every ill wind he encountered, yet with a stock market near new highs, the economy is growing at an anemic pace and an inadequate number of jobs are being created for the available labor force. Is there a plausible explanation for this?

The fact that 63% of the people think the direction of the country is on the wrong track ought to be a clue. The fact that 60% in a recent Wall Street Journal poll characterize the state of the nation as either “divided” or “troubled” ought to be a clue. The same poll revealed 59% were “pessimistic and worried” or “uncertain and wondering” about how well Obama will do in the remainder of his term. A whopping 74% in a Fox News poll believe the country is in a recession.

The government can’t create jobs, but government can certainly prevent the private sector from creating them. A Rasmussen poll last week showed 59% believed less government – not more – would narrow the income gap. I don’t believe in governing by polls, but it’s hard to ignore so many polls which indicate Obama’s policies aren’t working. After five years you’d think he’d “get it” and change his ideological course.

It was interesting, perhaps even telling, that ObamaCare, the law he wants to be his administration’s signature achievement, was not mentioned until he was 40 minutes into his 65-minute speech. Even then he spent less than five minutes on it. Good idea. A mid-term election is coming up in a few months and Democrats in tight races are dreading running against the unpopularity of his health law.

He did include a few misleading half-truths about the “success” of ObamaCare, however.

“More than nine million Americans have signed up for private health insurance or Medicaid coverage,” Obama chortled. Well, let’s just parse that a bit. He obviously wanted the audience to hear “this is the result of ObamaCare” like they first heard “you can keep your doctor.” About six million have signed up for Medicaid. Because of ObamaCare? Not necessary. Medicaid is essentially free and it’s not known how many meeting the subsidy guidelines were previously insured. Well, it’s known but HHS won’t tell us. One insurer estimates that almost 90% were previously insured, so only a small number of uninsured – the reason for turning American healthcare upside down – became newly insured. Moreover, many of the people Obama and HHS Secretary Sebelius claim have “signed up on the exchange” have actually registered on an exchange but haven’t paid their first premium. Writing a check should be the proof that the government’s insurance scheme is working. HHS won’t tell us that either.

No mention in the SOTU speech, of course, that more people have lost insurance as a result of ObamaCare than have signed up for it. No mention that the young aren’t signing up – an important problem since their premiums are needed to pay the claims of older insureds. (Thanks just the same; they’ll pay the fine.) No mention that people who were able to afford their prior private insurance can’t afford the premium cost and deductibles of ObamaCare. Certainly no mention that many healthcare providers – doctors and hospitals – aren’t accepting the O'care insurance. No mention that 43 O'care “navigators” in CA, who get access to personal information in the sign-up process, were discovered to be felons – 7 of them were repeat felons. No mention of the illegal waivers, the illegal subsidies paid to citizens of states that refused to set up exchanges, and no mention of the exemption that members of Congress get.

But the core of the SOTU speech was Obama’s threat to govern without Congress.

But America does not stand still – and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.

“I have a pen and I have a phone,” is the way he has framed his threat, meaning he’ll govern by executive order and agency regulations – his shadow government outside of Congress. That should concern all Americans.

In his 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Obama said he was a pragmatic problem solver – a guy who could reach across the aisle. He never showed that as a Senator, and he hasn’t shown it as President. He criticized President Bush for his use of executive orders, and promised that one of his first official acts as President would be to “order his attorney general"  to cancel all Bush executive orders that "trample on liberty” – whatever that meant. Now the shoe is on the other foot – his.

In the coming weeks, I will issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour – because if you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you should not have to live in poverty.

Obama is frustrated that Congress won’t do his bidding on the minimum wage so now he’ll show ‘em!

I blogged on the folly of the minimum wage last December. Obama’s executive order is all symbolism and no substance. It’s not retroactive, it doesn’t start until next year, and it will affect only a tiny sliver of contractor employees because most make more than $10. But it made him look like a man of action. A scary man of action. One willing to test the limits of the Constitution he has sworn to uphold.

Legislative and executive actions were separated by the Founders for a reason. Not only is it a threat to liberty when they are vested in the same person, but also the Founders intended for change by government diktat to be difficult and slow. Collaboration and compromise were designed into the system for a reason – because no ONE person is to be trusted with the keys to everyone’s freedom.

Obama’s approach to governing isn’t wrong because he’s a Democrat or because he has a radical agenda for the country. It’s wrong because it isn’t being done in accordance with a pact made between Americans and their government over 225 years ago that has served us well through 43 presidencies and 113 congresses.

Democracy and law-making is a deliberately messy business. President Reagan said, “If you can’t make [Congress] see the light, make them feel the heat [of the electorate].” Yet Obama mentioned six times that if Congress does not enact his agenda, he is willing to exercise the executive power of the presidency to accomplish his goals. As he says, “I have a pen and I have a phone.” Apparently he doesn’t understand that the same people who elected him elected them. And apparently he doesn’t understand that the next president’s pen and phone can undo all of his executive orders – as he did to the Bush executive orders.

A recent poll showed that only 19% of the public trusts the federal government. Obama has now shown us why.

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