The State of Disunion

Paul Quirk on what Obama's State of the Union Address means for Canada – there's both good news and bad news.
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February 15, 2013
Phil Lind Chair in US Politics and Representation, Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia

For numerous generations of Americans, the title of the U.S. president’s annual speech, the “State of the Union address,” has been a quaint reminder of the origins of the Constitution in a pact between 13 separate states, and of the early uncertainty about whether the new national government would function satisfactorily and survive.  Nowadays, the implication of concern for the nation’s prospects does not seem quaint.  The central issue that U.S. President Barack Obama raised in his speech is whether the U.S. government still has the ability to take actions that are clearly needed to avert failure.  “The greatest nation on Earth,” he said, “cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next. Let’s agree … to keep the people’s government open, pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America.”  The seemingly innocuous proposal elicited a standing ovation from Obama’s fellow Democrats, and stony silence from the Republicans, who took it as criticism.

Although Obama did not mention Canada directly, his speech contained several passages with bearing on Canada-U.S. relations.  The implications were mixed, with some good news and some grounds for disappointment.  The broader dimensions of the speech and its context, however, were alarming: A U.S. government afflicted with profound policy-making disability is a problematic partner for international co-operation.

Obama made a few points about trade that should favour Canadian interests.  He stressed the importance of increasing exports as a means to create jobs and promote economic growth.  Although he did not mention imports, let alone imports from Canada, a greater recognition of the benefits of trade should encourage resistance to domestic demands for protectionism.  More specifically, Obama promised to finish negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership – a free-trade agreement between the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and several Asian countries, among others.  The U.S. has not always lived up to its obligations under trade agreements, but a new commitment to a broader agreement should have a constructive effect.  Importantly, Obama also announced new talks on “a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union.”  As former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson has noted, such a partnership presents a danger that Canada might be left out.  But if that prospect prompts Canada and the EU to conclude their own agreement, already in progress, then Obama’s announcement will have indirectly benefited Canada.

The subject of borders hardly came up.  Obama spoke of the nation’s borders only in connection with his call for comprehensive immigration reform, and only to stress his commitment to strengthening security along the border with Mexico as an integral feature of such reform.  He claimed credit for “putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history, and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.”  Canadians can take some satisfaction in the fact that Obama used the term “southern border” in touting his security measures.  Certainly, he could have drawn the contrast with the northern border more sharply and boosted the Beyond the Border initiative as a means to promote economic growth.  But doing so would have confused his message about the southern border and gratuitously offended Mexico.

In one of his main economic initiatives, Obama called for a “Fix It First” program of improving infrastructure – both to create construction-related jobs in the short term and to promote growth in the long term.  Mentioning the country’s 70,000 structurally deficient bridges as among the urgent problems to be addressed, he added a twist that could prove important for Canada – that is, he stated his determination to “make sure taxpayers don’t shoulder the whole burden … [through] a Partnership to Rebuild America that attracts private capital.” Some kinds of infrastructure can attract private capital more easily than others, and the Obama administration will want respectable numbers to show the program’s success.  The Republicans will presumably block government spending remotely proportionate to Obama’s objectives. Even though a foreign government is not the kind of partner that Obama envisioned in the speech, the infrastructure initiative is likely to cinch his approval of the second Detroit-Windsor bridge, with funding generously provided by the Government of Canada. 

The remarks that will most disappoint Canadian business concerned energy.  Obama celebrated the expansion of U.S. domestic energy production – including oil and natural gas, as well as wind and solar power – proclaiming, “we are finally poised to control our own energy future.”  He took no note of any advantages of importing energy from North American neighbours as opposed to the Middle East.  More importantly, he made a strong commitment to make “meaningful progress” in combating climate change, and recognized some brute facts, including the record-setting warm temperatures and destructive weather events of recent years.  Responding to the calls of environmental groups, which make up an important part of his constituency base, Obama called on Congress to enact “a market-based solution to climate change,” and added that if it fails to act, he will take executive actions “to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”  Despite earlier signals that the Obama administration would eventually approve the Keystone XL pipeline extension, the climate in the Obama administration has grown colder for an environmentally hazardous project that facilitates importation of fossil fuels.  At this point, the decision on the pipeline – which would still be a major job creator – appears too close to call.

To assess the meaning of the State of the Union address for Canada, however, we must consider what it reveals, and what it ignores, about the general situation of the Obama presidency and American government.  Obama’s speech was in some ways surreal.  As in his inaugural address, he confidently set out an ambitious liberal agenda: gun control, a potentially bipartisan immigration reform, action on climate change, an infrastructure program, several education and employment initiatives, and new revenues (along with cuts in entitlement programs) to help control long-term budget deficits.  In setting out this agenda, he essentially ignored the fact that the Republicans can block many of his bills (using the filibuster) in the Senate, and virtually all of them (relying on their solid chamber majority) in the House of Representatives.  Moreover, in a circumstance unprecedented in American politics, a sizable fraction of a party whose consent is needed for legislation – roughly half of the House Republicans – rejects the value and necessity of compromise, in general.  Many congressional Republicans have been willing to see the government default on its debts rather than vote for an increase in the debt limit – unless the president and the Senate Democratic majority surrender almost entirely to their demands on long-term budget issues.

In a situation that was predictable immediately after the election (and that I did predict in a previous post), many Republican leaders have tried to reposition the party with a more moderate agenda, recognizing that the party is out of step with the prevailing demographic trends and the ideological direction of the country, and is becoming the party of “angry white men,” as Republican Senator Lindsey Graham complained.  An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted shortly before the State of the Union address showed that more Americans had a favourable impression of Obama’s policies (52 per cent) than of congressional Republicans’ policies (36 per cent).

Yet, the majority of congressional Republicans have not signed on to any repositioning.  Most are elected from solidly conservative Republican states or districts, and their electoral base – composed mostly of Tea Party sympathizers, if not members – demands precisely the hard-right ideological purity and opposition to compromise they have displayed.  The policies that have caused the party to lose presidential elections, and Senate elections in swing states, work fine politically for most Republican senators and representatives.  In view of the Republicans’ lack of disposition to change, veteran journalist Elizabeth Drew has asked recently whether the Republicans are “beyond saving.”

Obama’s widely noted confidence and assertiveness is therefore all about winning the national political debate, as he proceeds to confront the Republicans on a range of issues.  But the Republicans can – and probably will – block action on most of his initiatives, notwithstanding the costs in national support.  Confident of victory in the court of national opinion, Obama is nevertheless threatened with various policy fiascos, not to mention the complete failure of his own agenda.  The Democrats and Republicans may even fail, despite Obama’s plea, to agree on those measures that are needed to keep the government open, pay the bills, and maintain full faith and credit. 

To say the least, Obama has no political capital to spare for such purposes as fighting off interest-group attacks on Canadian imports, or raising the priority of improving the border.  For the foreseeable future, he will be struggling to avoid a series of train wrecks that threaten his agenda, if not the government.  In that context, devoting effort or using up political support to foster relations with Canada or any other country, or to avoid violations of trade agreements, would be like diverting attention from preventing train wrecks to polishing silverware in the dining car.