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Bill Rosenberg on the State of the Union, Spin and “Grand Political Theater”

February 13, 2014

William Rosenberg

Bill Rosenberg, PhD, professor of political science and resident expert on political opinion and media, calls the State of the Union speech a moment of pomp and circumstance and yes, some political theater. When we sat down with Professor Rosenberg to get his perspective on President Obama’s 2014 address, he contrasted today’s State of the Union speeches with those of centuries past.

Rosenberg points out that while the President is required by the Constitution to give an annual report on the state of the nation, the occasion has only become a formal and dramatic event since the 20th century.

“In the early decades of the United States, presidents usually sent Congress a written report; occasionally they might have made a speech, but it was never the highly publicized event that we know today,” says Rosenberg.

With that publicity comes the opportunity for political drama. Rosenberg not only watched President Obama’s speech, but he also tuned in for not one, but three responses to Obama’s State of the Union. The back and forth, Rosenberg comments, can be highly informative.

“Within minutes, you had Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers giving the Republican response, Senator Mike Lee giving the Tea Party response, and Senator Rand Paul taking to YouTube and other social media outlets to give his rebuttal. So you can’t ignore the back and forth.”

Rosenberg says that while presidents have often used their State of the Union addresses to introduce bold new platforms, the 2014 address lacked any major policy initiatives. With few exceptions, like the “myRA”— a retirement savings account program aimed at workers who are not offered retirement plans by their employers—and warning Congress not to impede or complicate ongoing negotiations with Iran, Obama returned to issues that have been on the presidential agenda for some time.

“These issues, from immigration reform to tax code reform, have been on the President’s ‘to do’ list for several years; they’re not new additions.” The major takeaway, says Rosenberg, was Obama’s more resilient tone, his promise to work “with or without Congress.”

“This is the President preparing to use executive orders to accomplish his agenda. Republicans call this defiant, though that is something of a misnomer. Obama has used the fewest executive orders of any recent president since Reagan. But the overall tone, the willingness to work around Congress rather than with Congress, angers some representatives, who have been elected and have strong voter mandates to counter some of Obama’s policies.”

So what are Rosenberg’s predictions for the coming political year?

“For my two cents, I think we’ll see immigration reform passed this year, and we’ll see progress on the minimum wage battle this year. Now, none of these things will be ‘complete,’ and by that I mean that neither the President nor the Republicans in Congress are going to get everything they want out of these political tussles. But if the President can get 80% of the way there, he can call that significant progress.”

On immigration reform, Rosenberg predicts a pathway to legal status, but probably not full citizenship. He has a similar prediction for the minimum wage: a wage hike for federal contractors, but not for the average worker.

“For issues like these, once it’s in place, it’s in place. Once there is a path to legal status for illegal immigrants, that path cannot easily be undone. It’s the same for gay marriage, the same for healthcare. The time when ‘Obamacare’ could be easily dismantled with is gone. Even if the Republicans do sweep the House and Senate [in the upcoming 2014 Congressional elections], can they easily tell Americans that their insurance companies can throw off kids before the age of 26, or refuse to cover people with pre-existing condition? No—the expectation is already there.”

But that’s not to say that Obama has a smooth year ahead.

“Politics is a full contact sport, and both the President and members of Congress have voter mandates. Of course Obama won the presidency…but Republicans and Tea Party representatives won their elections too.”

With these competing political agendas, Rosenberg’s prediction for the coming year is “Expect political conflict.”

Listen to Bill Rosenberg's Bill interview on POTUS XM-124 regarding the 2014 State of the Union »

William L. Rosenberg, PhD, is a professor of political science and well-known expert in the presidential election process, as well as public opinion and media related to the campaigns. He is the author of over 80 articles, papers and technical reports, and is co-author of two books related to public opinion and public policy: "News Verdicts, the Debates and Presidential Campaigns" and "The Politics of Disenchantment: Bush, Clinton, Perot and the Press.”