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What Canadians Can Hope for from the State of the Union: Not Much

Christopher Sands

President Barack Obama delivers his 2012 State of the Union address to Congress tonight, and it will be discouraging on many levels.

First of all, the state of the United States is not all that great. Unemployment is stubbornly high, household-name brand companies are declaring bankruptcy, and uncertainty casts a shadow over the affordability of health care, energy, food, housing, and education bills.

True, the economy is in doldrums but not facing a systemic economic and political crisis like Europe. But Europe’s crisis and the economic slowdown starting to affect Asia is a haunting reminder of one of the President’s previous State of the Union pledges: to double U.S. exports in five years. Progress on that front has been modest, not least because the two largest per capita consumers of U.S. exports, Canada and Mexico, are still held back from buying more by compliance costs associated with U.S. border security.

Second, the collapse of U.S. federal entitlement programs is a year closer, and nothing has been done to forestall disaster. U.S. presidents have talked about financial problems facing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in State of the Union messages since the 1980s, and rescue plans have been favourite themes for presidents of the Baby Boom generation (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Obama). The addition of health care reforms during this administration that are forecast to add to fiscal deficits, rather than to cut health care costs for the federal budget, hastens the day of reckoning.

Third, as he speaks to the assembled Members of Congress, the president’s relations with the House and Senate are particularly awful. The polarizing fights over health care, taxes, climate legislation, and the debt have sown deep distrust between Congress and the White House. Democrats who adored Obama on inauguration day now try to distance themselves from him on the campaign trail, chastened by the 2010 midterm rebuke received from voters, and conscious that polls now show that Republicans are likely to win control of both the House and Senate in November’s elections.

Among Republicans in Congress, there is a sense that opposition to everything this White House proposes is good politics, and popular with Tea Party members back home. Meanwhile, the latest campaign theme for President Obama’s re-election is to attack the unpopular Congress and blame the institution for the nation’s problems he has not been able to address as he would like. Fair or not, this vilification will not warm up his audience for the State of the Union. Nor will his past attacks from the dais aimed the Justices of the Supreme Court, who attend by tradition and courtesy; they will be making some of the most significant decisions in Washington this year.

Then there is a fourth reason for discouragement: The American people disapprove of both the president and the Congress, and the gap in trust between Americans and their leaders and representatives in Washington is near an all-time low. There is little confidence among the public that Washington can fix the country’s problems given the partisanship and games being played by Democrats and Republicans alike. What could the president say to convince a skeptical voter that his proposals have a chance of passing, or of making a difference?

In 2008, President Obama ran promising to change Washington, and the Members of Congress elected with him and in 2010 vowed to do the same; now they all want to change the subject. It is an election year once again, but this time instead of hope and change, it will be a year of blame and change-could-be-worse, be-careful-what-you-wish-for.

The State of the Union is parlous, and promises from the rostrum in an election year are offered at deep discounts. Friends of the United States abroad will find little inspiration or consolation from this evening’s speech.

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