Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday was, in the most literal sense, presidential. Near the speech’s opening, the president vowed to act “wherever and whenever [he] can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families.”
His promise, while concretely entailing only modest initiatives on jobs and wages, placed Obama squarely in the pantheon of presidents who have acutely represented the conflict and contradictions inherent in the role of the U.S. executive branch. Within the codes of U.S. government, the president can be both, as I’ve noted before, dictator of and hostage to political process.
In the realms of war-making, national security, surveillance operations and, of course, drone killings, President Obama’s tenure has been marked by frightening executive overreach. As I commented in advance of this year’s SOTU for Al Jazeera America, “Obama stands in a line of presidents who have grounded the extension of executive powers — over life, death, freedom and privacy — in the necessities of wartime.” The interminable war on terror has, for the entire Obama presidency and the foreseeable forever, given troubling but amorphous grounds for the executive branch to call on terrorism and unbounded war as a pretext to abrogate civil liberties.
Obama’s vow to use executive authority and skirt the legislative process on the economy is, even if only symbolically, his response to a conflict that has been so far definitive of his presidency: He has at once been an absolute sovereign, with power over life and death by drone fire, while also occupying the role of hands-tied puppet to an ideologue-filled Congress willing to push the U.S. economy into disaster. On Tuesday night Obama suggested that “wherever and whenever” possible on economic policy now, as well as the business of war, he will choose dictator over congressional hostage.
While drenched in neoliberal rhetoric of “opportunity,” Obama’s position on bypassing legislation for economic initiatives is not unique. Indeed, his concrete proposals in regard to this are meek compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s appeal to extraordinary executive power to push through the New Deal in 1933. A key difference, of course, is that while FDR was able to appeal to Congress to gain near limitless power to regulate U.S. economic life, no such appeal to Congress would work for our president today. The response would be as stony as House Speaker John Boehner’s expression Tuesday night. Hence Obama’s vowed executive action on economic matters of wages and retirement will be comparatively limited. The act, nonetheless, of promising to act “wherever and whenever” possible without legislation tells us much about what sort of sovereign we’re dealing with in Obama’s second term.
For a president who has acted with an often opaque executive overreach in the realm of national security, a vow to use that same executive power to act on modest but sensible economic initiatives is not — in the context — horrifying. But it is significant: In response to a conflict of sovereignty that has seen Obama as at once dictator and hostage, Obama’s resolution as expressed Tuesday is to lean toward the dictatorial. We might call it an alignment of policy: As with matters of civil liberty, war-mongering and privacy, Obama wants to bring economic policy increasingly under executive control too. Compared to his exercise of extraordinary powers so far, his vowed application of such power to the economy is not remarkable. It is, as the late, great poet George Oppen wrote, “An event as ordinary/ As a President.” Oppen places the banality of a president within an “air of atrocity.” His verse is appropriately applied to this year’s SOTU: an event as ordinary as a president, taking place in an already established context of atrocity.
Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email firstname.lastname@example.org.More Natasha Lennard.