11:00 A.M. EST
THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Good morning and welcome everyone here, at the Washington Foreign Press Center, and those of you joining us via DVC in New York. Thank you for joining us. We are pleased to welcome back to the Foreign Press Center Professor Lichtman, who will preview the President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address. Please note that opinions expressed by Professor Lichtman are his and not those of the State Department.
MR. LICHTMAN: Thank you.
Good morning. Thanks for braving the cold. My opinions are not only not necessarily that of the State Department, they are not necessarily that of anyone other than myself, including American University, where I am a professor.
I’m going to start with a couple of quotations. “The era of big government is over.” “States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil.” Do those two quotes sound familiar to anyone? Well, they are from State of the Union addresses – one from Bill Clinton back in 1996, and one, of course, from George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks in 2002. Why do I quote these statements? Because they are probably the only quotes anyone remembers from State of the Union addresses in the last 20 years.
State of the Union speeches do not tend to be particularly memorable. They don’t tend to be noted for their soaring rhetoric or their smashing policy breakthroughs. They tend to be rather pedestrian, kind of workman-like speeches that are well received, but are not held deeply in memory. And it is ironic statements that we do tend to remember, like Bill Clinton saying the era of big government is over, and of course, the government spending has exploded, more than doubled since Bill Clinton made that statement. And of course, George W. Bush’s statement about the axis of evil has largely been derided since he first made it in 2002. So you’re more likely to be remembered for an ironic statement than for an inspirational or soaring statement.
Now why does the President give a State of the Union Address every year? In part, because it’s in the framing document of the American Government, the original Constitution of 1787, which says that from time to time the president should give Congress information about the state of the union and make such recommendations as he deems expedient or necessary. It seems like kind of an innocuous little clause of the Constitution, but it’s one of the most important clauses with respect to presidential power and presidential tradition. The State of the Union Address is the only regular address that the President delivers, after his Inauguration Address after being sworn into office. And that other little innocuous statement in the Constitution about recommendations has really been the foundation for the agenda setting on the part of the president. That’s basically what has given the President the precedent and the authority to become the policy leader, to make proposals and recommendations, to set forth a budget that guides congressional deliberations.
Now, of course, the – that section of the Constitution does not say that the President has to give a State of the Union Address every single year. It just says “from time to time.” That was a precedent established by George Washington, who began the tradition of giving annual State of the Union addresses. They were not, however, back in Washington’s day, called the State of the Union. They were called the President’s Message to Congress. And they were really addressed to the Congress more than they were addressed to the general public. After all, in those days, nobody but a tiny audience actually heard what the President had to say, of course.
And the term “The State of the Union” did not come into use until Franklin Roosevelt began to use that term when he was president in the 1930s. And while we tend to look at the State of the Union Address as a speech to the American people and to the Congress, and that’s how it started out, Thomas Jefferson, who was elected president in 1800, stopped that tradition. Thomas Jefferson looked at himself and his image was kind of a plain person, a Democratic Republican, after the aristocratic Federalists of George Washington had lost power. And he thought that delivering an address in person – and by the way, Thomas Jefferson was a great writer and not much of a speaker – he thought delivering an address in person was too arrogant, too haughty, and he stopped the practice and he simply presented a written message to Congress. And that practice held for over 100 years.
There was no State of the Union speech until Woodrow Wilson revived it in 1913. Woodrow Wilson was a Democrat, a progressive Democrat, and he wanted to present his reform agenda, particularly on lowering tariff rates, to the Congress directly and in person. Unlike Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson was an excellent and moving orator. And since then, almost every president has annually presented the State of the Union as an address before a joint session of Congress.
In the 1920s, for the first time, State of the Union addresses were broadcast via radio, and the modern State of the Union Address really took shape in the era of television in the mid 1960s, when you got an address in the evening, and it – in prime time, covered by the networks with lots of commentary by the pundits of the time following it up, and also by the late 1960s, an opportunity for the opposition party to present a counter to the State of the Union Address. Of course, nobody ever listens to what the opposition party has to say, and in fact the opportunity to deliver the counter to the State of the Union Address has kind of been a political graveyard for those so chosen. Just ask Michelle Bachman and Governor Jindal of Louisiana, both of whom bombed out on national television.
Now, every time Barack Obama gives a speech, I’m always asked: Is this the most important speech of Barack Obama’s presidency? How will this speech define Barack Obama’s legacy? And my answer is always: No speech is that important. Presidential legacies are not defined by speeches, and certainly not in the modern era, when very few speeches are memorable. We don’t have speeches like Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address or Franklin Roosevelt’s First Inaugural or John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration Address.
And certainly, as I mentioned, State of the Union addresses have not generally been memorable, but there have been a few exceptions. Back in the 1820s, President James Monroe used his State of the Union Address – his seventh, in his second term – to announce the famous Monroe Doctrine, which said, “Europe, stay out of the Western Hemisphere” – kind of a lot of bluster, but it worked. And of course, maybe the most famous State of the Union is Franklin Roosevelt’s in 1941, after his unprecedented election to a third term, when he annunciated his four freedoms – freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech that guided the American and Allied war effort in World War II. And he also announced support for the Lend-Lease program to allies resisting Hitler’s Nazi aggression in Europe. But it’s rare that you get that kind of memorable breakthrough in a State of the Union.
This State of the Union, though, I think is more important than the usual for President Obama, because he faces some very daunting challenges, and he needs to reinvigorate his presidency, which has hit a low ebb in recent months. And not only does he need to reinvigorate it with the broad American public, he needs to reestablish the enthusiasm of his own Democratic and liberal base, which has become a bit disillusioned with Barack Obama. His liberal base was not happy with the revelations about the National Security Agency and surveillance programs. They were not happy with the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act. And so if you don’t have your base, it’s really almost impossible to govern in an effective way, and he’s got to reinvigorate his base.
Beyond that, let’s look at some of the numbers that Barack Obama faces going into tomorrow’s – this evening’s address, I guess it’s now, tonight. First of all, there is the general approval rating. According to the RealClearPolitics Poll Average, he’s 8 percent underwater – 44 percent approve, 52 percent disapprove. These are similar numbers to what George W. Bush faced as he became unpopular in his second term and well below numbers that Bill Clinton enjoyed in his second term, even though he was only the second president in the history of the country to be impeached and tried.
According to the RealClearPolitics Poll Average, only 29 percent of Americans think the country is on the right track; 63 percent of Americans think the country is off-track. According to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, only 31 percent of Americans say the country is better off since Obama took office. That’s pretty bad when you consider he took office in the midst of the worst recession in American history since the Great Depression of the 1930s. 39 percent think the country is worse off; 29 percent think it’s about the same.
According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, only 43 percent approve Obama’s handling of the economy. Only 37 percent approve of his handling of the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. And ironically, only 39 percent approve of his policies towards Iran, despite a potential breakthrough in negotiations with that country. These are very difficult headwinds for the President to face.
However, there are some positives that Barack Obama can build upon in this speech. First of all, there is the reality of the economy. While the perception of the economy is negative, the reality of the economy is it is improving, and most economists believe the economy is going to continue to improve. Economic growth is up, consumer spending is up, household wealth is up, home prices are up, and unemployment is down, down under 7 percent for the first time since Obama took office. These are very positive trends in the economy.
The problem for the President is they really haven’t been felt yet by a lot of the Americans. There’s the phenomenon known as economic lag, that is perceptions of the economy always lag behind the reality of the economy. And Obama is hoping over the next several months, and certainly before the mid-term elections of 2014, that economic perceptions catch up with economic reality and certainly that the economy does continue to improve.
What are some other positives for the President? 51 percent believe the President does have a clear agenda. They’re not happy with the way he’s handling things, but they do think he has a clear vision. And a very small plurality also have positive personal views of the President.
The greatest gift to the President though is the Republican Party, the opposition. For all of Obama’s problems, the Republican problems are worse. Republican approval is 24 percent in the NBC/Wall Street Journal most recent poll. That is virtually an historic low for any major political party in the United States. The disapproval rate is 47 percent. So it’s just about double the approval rate. The approval rating for the Democrats is lower, but not nearly as bad; it’s in the high 30s, about 37 percent.
The approval of Congress is at an historic low – 87 percent disapprove, 13 percent approve. That’s amazing. You can’t get 87 percent of the American people to tell you how they spell their name, much less to agree on the disapproval of Congress. 51 percent believe Republicans in Congress are too inflexible in reaching compromises, compared to 39 percent who think Obama has been too inflexible. So we know, of course, American politics is characterized by a very high degree of polarization. Republicans and Democrats hardly agree on anything, but more people put the blame on the Republicans than on the President.
And a number of the President’s agenda items have very high approval ratings and are among the top priorities with the American people. Sixty-three percent, for example, think expanding preschool education is a top national priority; 59 percent think closing corporate tax loopholes is a top priority; and 51 percent think raising the minimum wage is a top national priority. So these are the kinds of things that the President is going to talk about this evening, and should resonate with the American people. He is going to talk about preschool education, tax reform, raising the minimum wage, economic incentives for job training and for business growth and development. That should resonate very broadly with his audience.
We’ve heard a lot about income inequality, and that’s a real issue that he is going to be addressing because today the gap between – not rich and poor – that’s not what income inequality is all about. That’s not the gap. The gap is between the rich and everybody else. It’s the middle class who have had their economic situation stagnating for decades. But the gap between the rich and everybody else has now returned to the levels in America of 1929, the eve of the Great Depression. All of the gains of the middle and late years of the 20th century – and those gains in income equality were very substantial – have been wiped out since 1980. But he can’t address that as an issue of rich and poor. That’s not the issue. The issue is reaching out to the great middle class who are the ones who are really losing out in the economy and don’t have a lot of the government benefits that are available to the poor. So he’s got to talk about moving the economy generally, raising the minimum wage, and economic incentives for business investment and growth.
He also needs desperately to talk about the Affordable Care Act. Right before the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act, with the crashing of the website and so few people signing up, the Republican Party had put itself in a deep hole by being seen as responsible for the shutdown of the government. There’s something called the generic congressional poll, and that’s the poll which says, generically in the next election, do you favor a Republican or a Democrat? And the Democrats were ahead by 9 percentage points. They had a huge lead. And then, of course, you had the disaster of the rollout and all of those gains were wiped out. And today, Democrats and Republicans are about even going into the 2014 election. So he’s got to talk about the Affordable Healthcare Act.
And to this point – and it’s hard to imagine how this could have happened because Obama is such a great communicator – he has done a miserable job of selling the Affordable Care Act. His opponents have been more effective in defining the negative aspects of the act than Barack Obama has been in defining the positive aspects of the act. He’s got to talk about what’s in it for the great mass of the American people in the Affordable Care Act – things like having your kids stay on your insurance until they’re 26. My son is 21; I’m only going to have five more years of benefits. That’s worth tens of thousands of dollars to a middle class person like myself. Things about like not being bumped off your healthcare or being denied healthcare for preexisting conditions. And in terms of those people who may have had their policies canceled, how in fact they’re going to get better deals under the Affordable Healthcare Act.
He needs to talk about the fact that virtually every social program in the history of the country has had a rocky start. Social Security had a disastrous start. The Social Security Act has been amended numerous times over many, many decades. The present Social Security Act looks nothing like the Social Security Act did back when it was adopted in the 1930s, and he needs to talk about that.
And in fact, one of the positives for him on the Affordable Care Act is that about 54 percent of Americans believe we should work to fix the act and not repeal the act. And on all of these things, he has the advantage of the Republicans not really having credible alternatives to the programs of the President.
One area that he’s also going to talk about, of course, is comprehensive immigration reform. And this is one thing that he might be able to do with the cooperation of the Congress. There has been some movement just in the last couple of days on the part of Republicans in showing a greater willingness to accept a path to regularization for 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States – not necessarily citizenship, but legal status. And that’s a huge movement for the Republican Party.
It reminds me a little bit – not necessarily the Republicans, but Americans with regard to gays and lesbians. Public opinion first moved to the idea of giving gay and lesbian couples legal rights comparable to marriage, and then the next step that’s now been embraced by a majority of the American people is in fact accepting gay marriage and not just the legal equivalent of marriage. So we may really see some movement on immigration reform.
In other areas, of course, as you’ve already heard, he is going to act by executive order. Executive order is a very powerful tool of the President. By issuing orders in your role as the Chief Executive, you can do a lot without going through Congress. For example, in 1930, Herbert Hoover issued an executive order that cut immigration to the United States by 90 percent – 90 percent – just by reinterpreting the immigration laws. He didn’t have to go through Congress. He did it, of course, because it was – the Great Depression was overtaking the United States and he and others were imbued with the false belief that every time an immigrant comes to America, the immigrant takes a job from Americans.
We, of course, know that’s absolute nonsense. There’s a multiplier effect from immigrants as they spend, as they invest, as they start businesses, they often take jobs that other Americans don’t want, but that was the attitude then, and many American still have that attitude.
And then of course – few people know this – but John F. Kennedy’s most famous initiative, the Peace Corps, was originally set up by executive order before it became legislation. And Barack Obama has already issued some very powerful executive orders on the environment – for example, having the EPA regulate carbon emissions. And we do know already that he is going to try to implement some of his agenda through executive order – for example, raising the minimum wage above $10 an hour for employees who work for government contractors. That’s only a tiny portion of the labor force, but it’s the kind of thing that could have an effect on moving wages in the entire economy.
Finally, foreign policy. Foreign policy is definitely going to take a backseat to domestic policy. Truth is Americans don’t give a darn about foreign policy. I hate to say this. They don’t follow any of the details of foreign policy. When do they pay attention? Only in two circumstances: One, when there’s a terrible disaster like 9/11 or the Bay of Pigs invasion, or when there’s a big, splashy success like winning a war. We haven’t done that in a long time. Probably should be a lesson there – don’t fight these wars – but that’s another matter, or the Camp David Accords, something like that. Other than that, they don’t pay attention.
But I do think there is one area of foreign policy the President needs to address, and that is the negotiations with Iran. This is of critical importance – the rocky relationship with Iran, the Iran sanctions, have been a cause of rancor, tension, violence in the Middle East. If in fact President Obama can normalize relations with Iran, and through negotiations, credibly stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, that will go in a long way towards defusing tensions in the Middle East and will be a huge foreign policy triumph for President Obama comparable to the Camp David Accords of the Carter Administration that we still celebrate today.
Americans have no idea what he’s doing with Iran. As I said, his – only 39 percent approve of his policies towards Iran because they don’t understand it and they don’t trust it and they think he’s being hoodwinked by Iran. So if he could sell that to the American people, that is one area of foreign policy that would be extremely important for President Obama.
I want to close on one final thought. There was a time when President Obama had magic. He had charisma, he inspired people, he inspired people to think beyond the day-to-day tedium of their lives. That’s somewhat been lost in recent years. If I would want to see anything out of this State of the Union speech, it’s a return to the magical Obama. It’s a return to the Obama capable of soaring and inspiring rhetoric. I think he needs that in this State of the Union speech. Just a list of policy proposals won’t do it. I think he needs to strike not only at the heads of the American people in the Congress, but also at their hearts as well.
Thank you very much. I’ll take any questions.
MODERATOR: If you would like to ask a question, please raise your hand and wait until you get the microphone. Please state your name and your media organization.
QUESTION: Hi, good morning. Melanie Reffes.
MR. LICHTMAN: Good morning, good to see you again.
QUESTION: Good to see you too, Dr. Lichtman. NHK Japan Broadcasting. In the segment you discussed on foreign policy, can you just briefly go over that again? You mentioned Iraq and Iran. Is that correct?
MR. LICHTMAN: I focused really on Iran because I think that’s the most important thing he’s got to do in foreign policy, and here’s why. A breakthrough with Iran would be an historic triumph for the President. I am not a Middle East expert by any means. I’m a domestic U.S. policy expert. But those who are experts have talked about what they call the Cold War between the U.S. and Iran, with that Cold War doing all kinds of collateral damage in the Middle East. And those experts whose analysis seems to me quite persuasive argue that regularization of relations with Iran – a huge, important power in every sense not only in the Middle East, but throughout the world – would go a long way towards generally defusing tensions in the Middle East, including the war in Syria, and would be a signal foreign policy triumph for the President.
But the American people don’t understand this, they haven’t followed it, they think this is only about nuclear weapons and that maybe the President is being fooled and that maybe we need to maintain this hardline stance towards Iran. He really could do a lot of education about the Middle East and about Iran.
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Lauri and I’m from the Estonian Public Broadcasting. Could you please expand a bit about the history of the Republican or the opposition’s responses throughout the years since they began in the late ’60s, as you said? You said there have been, like a catastrophe for some of the people.
MR. LICHTMAN: Yes.
QUESTION: But has there been, like, a significant one or is this something that does not have an importance at all? This year we have the Tea Party --
MR. LICHTMAN: Yes.
QUESTION: -- the Republican Party, then Rand Paul’s going to do his own. What’s --
MR. LICHTMAN: I think it’s Mike Lee who’s going to – Mike Lee is going to do the Tea Party, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers is going to do the regular one.
It’s a disaster for a number of reasons. The original one was the Republican majority – minority leaders in the House and the Senate, Charles Halleck and Ev Dirksen, the Charlie and Ev show, and they were pretty good, actually. That may have been a high point for the responses to the State of the Union. The responses have tried everything – a single responder, many responders. Now you have the mainstream responder and the Tea Party responder.
Why is that the hardest act in politics? First of all, hardly anyone’s listening to you. By the time the President is finished, people are tired. They don’t want to hear another speech. They want to go to bed or have a drink or turn on late night comedy. They don’t want to hear another speech. Secondly, you’re not the President. Probably most of the American people have never heard of – I’m certain 90 percent of the American people, maybe 95, maybe 99 have never heard of Cathy McMorris Rodgers before she was picked to give this response. And usually these folks are – they’re not used to doing this kind of thing. How often does a member of Congress speak before a captive national audience? Never. And that’s why it’s so very, very difficult.
And the opposition – like we see today, the opposition is often divided. When you’re in power, even if you have divisions, you tend to paper over those divisions and unite behind the President. There’s no one for the opposition to unite behind, which is why this has been such a disaster for some well – previously well-respected politicians like Michele Bachmann and Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio, all bombed out in this. There’s a obvious reason why the Republicans have picked Representative Rogers, and what’s that? She’s a woman.
A directive should go out from the head of the Republican Party that no man in the Republican Party should ever, ever say anything about women, because every time they do it they put their foot or both feet in their mouths. You saw Mike Huckabee talking about Uncle Sugar coming in to give women contraceptives so they can control their libidos. An idea like that ended in the 19th century. This is the 21st century. Or Rand Paul talk, saying you can’t distinguish Bill and Hillary Clinton, implying that she should be held responsible for his transgressions. That’s another idea that went out the window a hundred years ago, that the wife should be the one responsible when the husband strays because she has done something wrong. So really, Republican men need to keep their mouths shut on any issue regarding women. And so they’ve got an attractive woman, a woman with kids. On paper, it looks great. But we’ll see how it actually comes out.
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Melissa Sim from The Straits Times, Singapore. I just wanted --
MR. LICHTMAN: Know it well.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about this whole pivot to Asia. It does not sound like that will be addressed in – tonight --
MR. LICHTMAN: It will not.
QUESTION: And since it will not, is that something that we should be worried about, that the priorities for the next three years would not include that?
MR. LICHTMAN: No. I don’t think you need to worry about that at all. I think the pivot to Asia is real. Barack Obama knows how important relations with China and Japan and other parts of Asia are. He’s not going to make this a pivot in the State of the Union for a couple of a reasons: One, he’s not going to deal extensively with foreign policy, as I explained. That’s not where the minds of the American people are. That’s not how he’s going to move people. And that’s actually one of his stronger areas. Aside from the Iran problem, he polls better in foreign policy and the war on terror than he does in domestic policy. And secondly, there’s only so much you can do in one speech. So no, that’s not going to be a – he may mention it, but it’s not going to be developed in this speech. But you shouldn’t read anything into that.
QUESTION: Hi. Bill Marsden, Postmedia News in Canada. I was just wondering if you could extend a little bit your description of the extent of the President’s executive power --
MR. LICHTMAN: Yes.
QUESTION: -- with regards to specific policies he’d like to see, such as immigration. I mean, this morning he brought out an executive order concerning the minimum wage --
MR. LICHTMAN: Right.
QUESTION: -- extending it to federal employees. But could he do that right across the country, for instance?
MR. LICHTMAN: Yeah.
QUESTION: So could you just apply it to the various issues --
MR. LICHTMAN: Sure.
QUESTION: -- that he faces domestically? Thank you.
MR. LICHTMAN: Yeah. The President’s power via executive order is pretty broad, but it’s only directed at the Executive Branch of government. So those who have direct dealings with the Executive Branch or who are members of the Executive Branch can be covered very, very broadly by executive order. So you can expand the authority of the regulatory agencies, for example, through executive orders.
You certainly can do all kinds of things on immigration through executive order. You could adopt a form of the Dream Act insofar as would affect the institutions receiving federal aid via executive order. We’ve already seen what he’s doing on employment, minimum wage, via executive order. So there’s a lot you can do so long as directly affecting the Executive Branch of government or those who have dealings with the Executive Branch. He cannot, for example, mandate a minimum wage for private industry. He could not do something like that. But he can do it the way he’s doing it because he’s doing it only for those who are contracting within the federal government and their employees. But it’s pretty broad.
And the only control over this is the courts. If you want to challenge an executive order, you’ve got to go through a lengthy, difficult legal process to show the President has gone beyond his constitutional powers as Commander-in-Chief, or you’ve got to wait until the next election. Because the weakness of an executive order is it can be de-ordered once the next executive comes in. And we’ve seen this time and again with the switching of parties. Every time a Republican comes in, they issue some pretty rigid executive orders with regard to access to abortion – abortion on military bases, what those receiving federal aid can do with respect to abortion. Then as soon as you get a Democratic president in, they repeal all of those executive orders. So the strength of the executive order is you can do it without Congress. The weakness is if there’s a change in parties, in can be instantly repealed.
MODERATOR: Can we go to New York and take a question from Janine Harper?
MR. LICHTMAN: Sure.
MODERATOR: New York?
QUESTION: Okay. Janine Harper, Fuji Television. You spoke about the executive order that would be used to change the federal workers’ wages, and you spoke about how that might affect minimum wages throughout the country. Can you talk about the time period, how that would trickle down to minimum wage throughout the country, and exactly how that would work?
MR. LICHTMAN: Well, I think the way would work – it’s not by law, but as you say, by trickle-down precedent you are establishing a higher wage level for a certain class of employees, and the argument is that to get more qualified employees or to compete, private employers would then have to offer higher wages – perhaps not the $10.10 minimum wage that employees of government contractors are ordered to do, but at least something higher than the kinds of wages they’re offering now. Whether that works or not remains to be seen, but that’s the theory. Once you – wage raises for one class of workers, then there’s going to be competitive wages for others.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. My name is Tatsuya Mizumoto from Jiji Press, Japanese wire service. Could you describe – Obama magic, which you mentioned before – how the President able to regain his magic, his charisma, his leadership through the speech.
MR. LICHTMAN: Right.
QUESTION: That only executive order, they are not (inaudible) for him?
MR. LICHTMAN: I didn’t catch the last thing you said there.
QUESTION: Yeah, you mentioned --
MR. LICHTMAN: I got about the charisma and how he can change.
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah.
MR. LICHTMAN: Okay, I got it. I’ll tell you how he captures – recaptures his magic. Fire the hucksters, fire the handlers, fire the consultant. Get rid of those folks that have put Barack Obama in what I call the presidential bubble – the handlers, the pollsters, the consultants, the hucksters. They never tell you to take risks. They never tell you to be bold and imaginative. Those things don’t poll very well. They always bring you down to the lowest common denominator. If we had pollsters and consultants in the time of Abraham Lincoln, we’d still have slavery in American today. Obviously, that’s hyperbole, but you get my point. Lincoln had to think boldly. He had to do something no one had ever done before. That was very risky. The consultants, the handlers, and the pollsters would never have allowed them to do it.
Barack Obama has fallen victim to what – the disease that afflicts almost every president, and that is getting caught in the Washington bubble, listening to the consultants, listening to the pollsters, listening to the handlers. No one has ever becomes a great president or an inspiring president because of what the hucksters have told them. The only way you do it is by being yourself.
Barack Obama has got to go back to that guy, the skinny unknown guy back in the Democratic Convention of 2004 who spoke genuinely and from the heart and inspired the American people. Is he going to listen to me and fire everyone this afternoon? I doubt it. But he should.
QUESTION: Thank you. Jun Kaminishikawara with Kyodo News, Japanese news agency, again as well. I would like know how you think President Obama would like to take advantage of tonight’s opportunity – State of the Union – to regain his momentum for his rest of three-year term.
MR. LICHTMAN: Right. As I’ve said, I think recapturing the magic, inspiring people, is very, very important. He’s got to reinvigorate his base, and he’s got to do that by creating again some excitement for the Affordable Care Act. Haven’t talked about this before and he’s not going to dwell on it, but his base is very angry with him about the surveillance programs. And he’s got to talk about why his reforms are going to bring that into check.
And then he’s got to convince the people that he’s going to take action on things that really matter to them, which, of course, first and foremost, is always the economy. He’s got some specific programs that’s we’ve talked about, and I think this instrument of the executive order is very powerful. The American people don’t care whether it’s done by executive order or not. They’re not going to get into the constitutional nitty-gritty of that. They’re only going to care that action is being taken. And given the gridlock in the House, a lot of action will have to be taken via executive order. He’s already done a lot of things, and this raising the minimum wage is another option.
QUESTION: Hi. Takashi Oshima from the Asahi Shimbun, Japan. I was wondering if you could elaborate a little bit about your statement that foreign policy is really in the back seat. Do you think – generally speaking, do you think there is any correlation between how much time the president spend for talking about foreign policy and how much the Administration or this country are paying attention to the issues outside with the world? And if the President will spend less time to talking about foreign policy this time compared with his previous address, what do you think is the implication?
MR. LICHTMAN: Yeah. I don’t think the President talking about foreign policy in one speech makes any difference whatsoever for the American people, unless he can make a big splash with it. We live in the celebrity culture in America, we live in the culture of the moment, we live in the culture of the spectacular. So what gets attention – this football player who goes on television and rants against his opponents and does something spectacular that you haven’t seen, he’s got more attention than the president of the United States by doing that. So unless you’re going to do something that really makes a splash and really captures people’s attention, talking about the details of foreign policy is going to shoot right over the heads of the American people.
That doesn’t mean though that the President isn’t going to be paying attention to it. You can’t equate what he says in a speech necessarily with what the Administration actually does, because he knows that the people of the United States are looking inward. What was the number I gave you – off track? Something like 63 percent think America is off track. Only 29 percent think America is on the right track. So when you’ve got numbers like that, it’s a little bit hard to get people to pay attention to what’s going on around the world, except if you can bring it home and make it something of real importance, like I think there is a chance with Iran.
QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Keiichi Shirato, Mainichi newspaper of Japan. I’m very much interested in the perception of the Congress about the State of the Union. So I think the President, as you said, president mentioned that he’s going to use more executive orders --
MR. LICHTMAN: Yes.
QUESTION: -- in order to implement the policy, what he wants to do. However, so if this State of the Union is a message to the American ordinary people, so if president say I’m going to use more executive order, the president looks very decisive person. However, so I’m wondering with if he says so, so it looks very – how should I say? – it’s very uncomfortable for the members of the Congress, because executive order doesn’t respect the process of the Congress. Can you understand what I’m saying?
MR. LICHTMAN: I hear you completely, and you know what? The President couldn’t care less, really, about what’s going on in the Congress, because the Congress is at 13 percent approval rating. He’s not really speaking, in this address, to the Congress. He’s speaking to the American people.
I think he also knows that the Congress is like Wall Street. It operates on two principles: fear and greed. And the only way you make them fearful of you or greedy for your support is by getting the backing of the American people. Congress isn’t going to pay a whole lot of attention to you when you have 40 percent approval. They’re going to pay a lot more attention if your approval rating goes up to 55 percent. He’s also not really worried about Republican criticism, because the Republican Party stands at 24 percent. He’s 20 points ahead of the Republican Party in approval, and they really have not been able to do much in the way of selling their own programs.
That doesn’t mean the Republicans aren’t going to do well in the mid-term election. See, the problem for the President is the Republicans are the only alternative. The American people are not going to vote for the Libertarian Party or the Green Party, so anyone who’s unhappy with Obama, they’re going to vote Republican. And that’s why he’s got to -- he’s not running again, but mid-term elections are very much a referenda on the President himself.
QUESTION: Hi. Li Ping from China Radio International. I know media will give a lot of coverage to the State of Union Address. I wonder how the American public, how American ordinary people really care about his speech. And will they watch him live or read in great detail how – will they take his speech seriously?
MR. LICHTMAN: Well, the great majority of the American people won’t watch the speech live, but will get their impression of the speech from you all – from how the press and the commentators interpret the speech. That’s just as important, maybe in some ways more important than the speech itself, as I said. That was kind of the birth of the modern State of the Union in the ’60s when you began to have this kind of instant commentary about the speech. You’ll also get these overnight quick polls on the speech, and usually those polls are pretty favorable, because after all, who’s going to watch the speech? Primarily people who are at least sympathetic to the President. Those who are indifferent or against him are probably less likely to watch the speech.
So you’re absolutely right. The interpretation and analysis of the speech is as important or maybe more important since the great majority will not get the speech directly and unfiltered.
MODERATOR: One more question (inaudible)? All right. Thank you very much for coming.
MR. LICHTMAN: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you.
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