Obama will speak to public opinion, not Republicans

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, February 12, 2013


When President Obama delivers his state of the union address tonight, Congress will receive his proposals with even more polarization than during his first term. Republicans will reject Obama's proposals and Democrats will cheer the President but have few expectations of getting those initiatives through a Republican-controlled House. To tilt the balance in his favor, Obama will be speaking to the American public to outline his plan for the next four years.  Since he expects little room for compromise with Republicans, Obama will seek to convince public opinion and corner the Republicans into advocating for unpopular positions.


After losing the election, control for the Republican Party has been fought over between ideological purist and pragmatists. The purists argue that they lost the election simply because they fail to engage the silent conservative majority. Pragmatists argue that the American electorate is changing rapidly and Republicans are failing at attracting younger voters and minorities. While purists argue that they should be even more committed to core beliefs, pragmatists argue that conservatism evolves with society and that some priorities are more urgent. Moreover, pragmatists argue that by pushing too hard for some unpopular conservative beliefs, Republicans are making it easier for democrats to keep the White House and implement policies that go against all Republican priorities. 


As they have more influence in the Senate than in the House, Republican moderates have put their efforts in passing an immigration reform in the upper chamber. By addressing the broken immigration system and creating a path to citizenship for law-abiding undocumented immigrants, moderates hope that the GOP will attract Latinos—or at least will minimize the negative perception most Latinos now have of Republicans.  Moderates rightly believe that Latinos hold social and moral values that are closer to Republicans than to Democrats. Thus, Latinos should be sympathetic to Republican core values. However, because Republicans have championed a tough stance on immigration—which is often perceived as racist against Latinos—Latinos have ran away from Republican candidates. 


The fact that 2 of the three Latinos in the U.S. Senate are Republican makes it easier to bring up immigration reform in the Senate. Moreover, because one of those Latino Republican senators, Florida’s Marco Rubio, has presidential aspirations, he will champion of immigration reform to attract Latino support and present himself as a moderate to non-Latino voters.  In the House, where there are 30 Latinos—23 Democrats and 7 Republicans—the prospects for immigration reform are grimmer.  Though a majority of Democrats would be amenable to an immigration reform, the Republican majority will oppose a reform that offers a pathway to citizenship. Conservatives will balk at the notion of a citizenship path. Republicans will offer a compromise on temporary visas and guest worker programs. In the view of many conservative Republicans, most Latinos will never stop voting for Democratic candidates.  Thus, though the Senate might be willing to compromise with President Obama on some moderate reforms, the House will likely keep its hardline position.


Republicans hold a majority in the House of Representatives because of the distortions of electoral rules, not because Americans want a divided government. Though the Republicans have 234-201 majority in the House, in November of 2012, more Americans voted for Democrats than for Republicans in the election for the House of Representatives. While the Republican candidates received 58.3 million votes, Democrats received 59.6%.  Fortunately for Republicans, House of Representatives districts in most states have been drawn by state legislatures with Republican majorities and are thus gerrymandered against Democrats. In other states, the district map favors rural constituencies, where Republicans also command a majority. As a result, control of the House of Representatives is safe against democratic electoral majorities.  It will be extremely difficult for the Democratic Party to retake control of the House in the 2014 midterm elections. In fact, it is more likely that Republicans make gains in the Senate—where they currently have 45 seats, 10 fewer than the Democrats—in the midterm election.  Since 20 of the 33 seats up for re-election in November of 2014 are presently held by Democrats, the Republicans have little to lose in next year’s election.  After rejecting to compromise during Obama’s first term, there is no reason why the Republican majority in the House will want to compromise now.


Aware of the obstacles ahead, President Obama will use his state of the union address as an opportunity to present his policy agenda to the American public.  He is fully aware that there will be little room to bargain and compromise with the Republican majority in the House, but he also knows that electoral victories have given him more leeway to push his agenda through than prolonged and fruitless negotiations with Republicans. After his re-election, Republicans had to accept a tax increase on the wealthy. Obama hopes that by convincing public opinion in his state of the union address, he will have a much better hand when negotiating with Republicans than by repeating an offer to compromise with Republicans. After all, Obama has been far more successful convincing American voters than convincing Republicans in Congress.