Obama’s Pitch on Guns and Immigration
President Barack Obama gets down to business with Congress Tuesday night as he delivers the annual State of the Union message before a joint congressional session in Washington. The president’s speech is expected to focus on his legislative priorities for this year, especially his push for new gun control measures and immigration reform.
The gun issue was forced into the national spotlight by the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in December. The administration and congressional Democrats seem to be focused on a range of ideas from improving and expanding background checks for gun purchasers to calling for a renewal of the ban on military-style assault weapons and limits on high capacity magazines.
Most of the attention at the moment is focused on expanding the background check system, which even some Republicans seem open to. The assault weapons ban still seems like a long shot, but I think the administration and liberals in Congress believe they have to make a push for it even if it looks doomed in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. But the bottom line on guns is there seems to be a modest consensus building in Washington that something could actually get done on background checks this year, which is significant given how politically toxic the gun issue has been for Democrats for the past several years.
Don’t forget that the passage of the initial assault weapons ban by a Democratically-controlled Congress in 1994 contributed to the Republican takeover of both the Senate and House of Representatives in November of that year.
Immigration Reform Push
The other area that looks promising this year is the prospect for some kind of immigration reform that would offer most immigrants who are now in the country illegally a path to eventual citizenship, though how tortured and drawn out that would be remains a key point of contention. The key on this again is Republican involvement, and a bipartisan group of senators that includes Florida Republican Marco Rubio and Arizona Republican John McCain is putting forward a serious proposal that ties improvements in border security to any formulation that would offer immigrants a path to citizenship.
The fact is, many Republicans, especially in the House, still see the words “a path to citizenship,” and to them it spells “amnesty” — something they vowed never to let happen. But the election results from November paint a dire picture for Republicans without some sort of movement on immigration reform that they could use as an opening to at least make a pitch to Hispanic voters for consideration in upcoming elections. President Obama winning 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in his matchup with Mitt Romney last November is one of those glaring numbers that seems to scream “permanent minority party unless Republicans can find a way to be more competitive.
Expect both gun control and immigration reform to be the focus of the president’s public pitch for support during the State of the Union. But it’s also expected he will issue dire warnings about allowing the so-called federal budget sequester cuts to take effect on March 1st.
Both political parties are talking about trying to head off the automatic cuts to military and domestic spending that some economists warn would have dire consequences for the economic recovery. But you also hear an awful lot of Republicans talking about how they might be just as happy to let the cuts take effect and brag to their constituents back home that they were the ones who forced the president to finally make some serious cuts in government spending.
This is the next great budget battle brewing in Washington and the political consequences could be enormous. Republicans believe they are in a strong position to demand budget cuts because they gave in on ending tax cuts for the wealthy at the beginning of the year. Democrats think the public is with them and will find the across-the-board cuts distasteful if they go into effect. They are also confident that the Republicans will get most of the blame for any kind of budget roulette. This is reminiscent of the budget showdown battles of the 1990s between the Clinton administration and the Newt Gingrich-led Republican Congress. Republicans wound up the political losers back then, but there does some to be some public appetite for cuts now, though perhaps not on the scale most Republicans want.
Rubio in the Spotlight
Republican congressional leaders have chosen Senator Marco Rubio to deliver the Republican Party’s official response to the president’s State of the Union address. It’s a huge opportunity for Rubio to further enhance his national profile just in case he decides to run for president in 2016. Rubio will deliver part of his response in Spanish, and his Cuban-American heritage makes him a natural to try and break through to Hispanic voters and immigrants in general. It’s interesting that the leadership did not invite Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan to give the response even though last year’s Republican vice presidential candidate is also likely thinking about 2016. Nor did they offer it to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has been all over the national news and late night comedy shows of late talking about everything from the election to Hurricane Sandy to his own weight problems. While Rubio, Ryan and Christie are looking bound for a showdown in 2016, don’t forget to add one more name to that mix—Kentucky Senator and Tea Party favorite Rand Paul. Like his dad, former Representative Ron Paul of Texas, the son also harbors presidential ambitions.
It may seem strange, but the choice of Rubio to deliver the Republican response is actually the first mini-salvo in the battle for positioning for potential Republican presidential contenders for 2016. In presidential politics, it’s never too early to start figuring out who’s up and who’s down.
Why is There a State of the Union Address?
What has come to be known as the State of the Union address stems from a rather vague constitutional requirement that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union” and “recommend…such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
Presidents George Washington and John Adams delivered their messages in person before Congress. But our third president, Thomas Jefferson, thought the whole thing was too much like a king addressing his subjects so he began the tradition of simply sending a written report to Congress. That was the norm until Woodrow Wilson in 1913, when he revived the idea of giving a speech before a joint session of Congress.
It used to be called the president’s annual message to Congress, but since the 1940’s it has been referred to as the State of the Union. And ever since, it has become the custom that when the president stands before Congress and the nation to report on the State of the Union, they invariably find it “strong and resilient” no matter what crisis is facing the country at that time.
It wasn’t until President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 that the address was delivered to Congress in the evening. Ever since, presidents have looked at it as a golden opportunity to address not only lawmakers but the public at large through television and build public support for their agenda before the Congress.
The idea of an opposition party response came into play in the late 1960s, right after the event became a primetime television event (gee, any connection there?). The modern response is about five to 10 minutes, but back in the early days some of the responses lasted 45 minutes on television and involved numerous comments from a variety of party officials and lawmakers.
State of the Union as Theater
Modern day presidents see the State of the Union as one of the few speaking opportunities that is guaranteed to be carried by the broadcast and cable news television networks. In addition to laying out a lengthy agenda, the president refers to guests in the visitor’s gallery to help make political points or symbolize causes. Expect to see some representatives from Newtown, Connecticut this year as well as some successful immigrants who will help make the president’s case for immigration reform.
The State of the Union is stagey, a bit contrived and sometimes awfully long, but it’s one of the few opportunities where Americans can see all three branches of government in one room at the same time, listening to the leader of the country explain where he or she would like to take them in the next few years. It is more overtly partisan than a presidential inauguration and at times invites some of the crudest demonstrations of raw democracy, like the South Carolina Congressman (Republican Joe Wilson) who screamed “you lie!” at President Obama during his 2009 message to Congress when he spoke about health care reform.
Occasionally the State of the Union leads to international headlines. In 2002, President George W. Bush used the address to call out the so-called “Axis of Evil,” labeling North Korea, Iran and Iraq as significant security threats to the United States. The following year, Mr. Bush sparked a controversy when he used his address to refer to Iraqi efforts to seek quantities of uranium in Africa as he built a case for eventual military action against Saddam Hussein.
The fact is, though, that Americans generally like to see politicians from the two parties getting along, or at least acting civil toward one another despite the deep political differences in the country. That is where the State of the Union can play at least a symbolic role. The sight of the president making his way into the House of Representatives chamber mobbed by members from both parties often gives them hope that the country and its elected representatives can, occasionally, find ways to get along in the name of the common good.