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January 29, 2014 9:49 AM It’s All About the Context

By Ed Kilgore

I said about all I had to say about the SOTU Address last night, so let’s focus a bit on how well it met the “expectations game” and where it left the president’s political standing. An awful lot of that depends on how low you think he sank during 2013.

I didn’t see Jonathan Chait’s essay on this subject until this morning, but I think it’s worth mulling:

What, then, has the administration done with the last year? The first thing it did was wage a political war to assert, or reassert, the basic legitimacy of the executive branch. In my preview of Obama’s second term, I wrote, “The necessary predicate [for a successful second term] is for Republicans to accept Obama as a legitimate president.”
In 2013, Republicans were not prepared to make that concession. The congressional GOP undertook a campaign to strip Obama of the normal presidential powers, in two ways. One was by using the threats of a government shutdown and a debt default as “leverage,” which could force the president to surrender policy concessions to Congress without any policy trades. The second was an unprecedented move to blockade any appointment at all to vacant executive branch and judicial positions. Much of the drama of 2013 was consumed with Obama and his Democratic allies successfully beating back this ambitious Republican effort to reshape the power dynamic between the branches of government.

If it hadn’t been for the Obamacare enrollment rollout, says Chait, Obama would have been in the driver’s seat going into 2014, and we might have heard a different SOTU Address. Instead, he’s engaging in damage control:

Those low approval ratings provide the impetus for Obama’s splashy new message. Everything about Obama’s messaging — the image of vigorous unilateral action, the laser focus on jobs, the small but popular policy initiatives attached to it — serve the goal of patching up the president’s standing and framing the Washington story in the most favorable terms possible. The State of the Union address is not an effort to fundamentally reorient the administration’s strategy. It’s a campaign to mend the political damage from the botched Obamacare launch.

If that’s the case, then despite the low-impact nature of the speech and its content and the middling reviews it’s earned, there must be an expectation in the White House that Obama’s approval ratings will soon improve. That could not happen too fast for Democrats getting jittery about this November.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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