The economy has never been better – but his approval ratings have never been lower. As Barack Obama prepares for his State of the Union address tonight, what can he hope to achieve?
The state of the union is, well, strong. As strong as it has ever been under President Obama’s watch. Yet at this perilously lame-duck stage of his presidency, midway through his second term, he is getting precious little credit for it.
First details about the speech reveal that the president’s first pronouncement will be to raise the minimum wage for federal workers, from $7.25 an hour to $10.10. “Boosting wages will lower turnover and increase morale,” the White House said. Subtext: hopefully that goes for Democrats too.
The minimum wage initiative is certainly a popular one, helped in part by the high-profile series of strikes by fast-food workers across the country. One of them, Simone Sonnier-Jang, will be in the audience for the president’s speech, hoping no doubt that her $8 an hour will be raised in line with the federal wage hike.
It is all part of the Obama pitch to the middle classes: expect themes like opportunity and social mobility, issues that people beyond the confines of Washington are really talking about.
Jon Favreau, who wrote four of Obama’s previous SOTU addresses before moving to the private sector, predicted “initiatives on job creation, wages, training, education”, which he said would be framed “around the need for action”.
There are certainly plenty of calls for action, after a frustrating year when almost every single one of Obama’s policy goals was frustrated by the divided congress, from stricter gun controls to immigration and intervention in Syria.
The briefest of brief windows of opportunity which followed Obama’s 2012 victory has all but vanished, the euphoria now a distant memory: members of congress are already focused on their own election battles in November.
The Republicans need to win just six Senate seats to gain a majority: Democrats in states like Arkansas, Alaska and Lousiana, where Obama polled badly in 2012 now fear for their own chances.
For all of these reasons, then, 2014 will be very far from those high-flown, high-hopes rhetorical tours de force of the past. This is unlikely to be as memorable, as important to the national conversation, as the Philadephia speech on race or the post-Trayvon Martin declaration on identity and guns.
This time, the strategy seems far more prosaic: less grandiloquent appeals to destiny and idealism, more pieces of desk furniture. Specifically, the pen and the phone. The scope of presidential power, in microcosm.
Obama has hinted at such modest ambitions before, according to the New Yorker’s David Remnick. who recalls him telling activists buoyed up on a tide of their own expectations that it was not as simple as that.
“We’ve got this constitution, we’ve got this whole thing about separation of powers. So there is no shortcut to politics, and there’s no shortcut to democracy.”
What there is, however, is a pen and a phone, resplendent on the Oval Office desk.
A pen, to sign executive orders, and a phone to amplify his voice above the cacophony of that eternally divided house. As senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer put it in an email to supporters this weekend: “When American jobs and livelihoods depend on getting something done, he will not wait for congress”.
The pen and the phone strategy, though, depends on striking a chord with the public. With approval ratings languishing at just 44 per cent, the White House team has decided their best bet are those bread-and-butter middle class issues: the minimum wage, fairness at work, more cash for education and jobs.
Listen to the experts, and that shouldn’t be an impossible feat: take Scott Anderson, from Bank of the West, who told the New York Times that “economically speaking, the state of the union is the best we’ve seen for years”.
The Republicans, too, are hardly in great shape for the midterms, burdened with the lion’s share of blame for frustrating so much legislation and almost bringing the nation to the brink of economic catastrophe over the debt ceiling fight.
But look at the latest opinion polls, and the public just are not buying into it. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found more than two-thirds of Americans believe the country is either stagnant or worse off since Obama took office.
More than six in 10 think the US is heading in the wrong direction, while 70 per cent are dissatisfied with the state of the economy.
Little wonder, perhaps, that Obama is no longer even talking in terms of a grand legacy. As he told the New Yorker: “At the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”
A pen, a phone and a paragraph in history. In 2014, from the polarised to the frustrated, the partisan and the disenchanted – the reality of presidential power should come to this.
Felicity Spector writes about US affairs for Channel 4 News