The Obama era is coming to a close: Why this week marks the beginning of a new stage of American politics

One last State of the Union, two more primary debates, and a pivotal SCOTUS case: This week is going to be crazy

Published January 10, 2016 5:00PM (EST)

  (AP/Reuters/Rick Wilking/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Nati Harnik/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Reuters/Rick Wilking/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Nati Harnik/Photo montage by Salon)

If you were still in a post-holiday haze this early in 2016, the upcoming week will snap you right out of it. The next seven days offer a blizzard of intense political activity—a fitting start to a presidential-election year that will surely sap us all of our energy, strength and general will to live.

Let's dive right in: On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case that could deal a crippling blow to public sector unions across the country. The plaintiffs are seeking to overturn the legal framework that has regulated union activity in America since the late 1970s, and eliminate rules that mandate people who are not members of unions, but who still benefit from union bargaining, to contribute fees to the union. The Court has repeatedly upheld these rules, but now it appears that the justices may be ready to do away with them. (The Roberts Court has never been shy about reversing decades-old judicial understandings.)

The Nation wrote on Thursday that a victory for the plaintiffs would be disastrous for organized labor:

[It] would trigger an earthquake in American labor relations. The legal foundations of thousands of public-sector bargaining agreements, covering millions of workers providing all manner of public services, will disappear. The whole of American public employment, at all levels of government, will become a “right to work” (i.e., right not to pay for service) killing field for unions.

So, no big deal! And that's just the first day of the week.

Tuesday sees President Obama deliver the last State of the Union address of his presidency. Obama's aides have promised a "non-traditional" speech which will aim to sum up his tenure in office and do some big-picture stuff rather than bombard the audience with 50 proposals which will never see the light of day.

It would be nice if this turns out to be true. The State of the Union is one of those yearly spectacles that could badly do with an overhaul. Why does everyone clap thunderously when the president walks in, then sit down, then rise again when he's at the podium? Why does the speech always last such an unbelievably long time? Every State of the Union serves as a perfect reminder of why we should split the roles of head of state and head of government. Instead of losing our minds every time a Republican doesn't clap at Obama, get some figurehead up there to read some canned remarks and then be done with it. The Queen's Speech in Britain is utterly ridiculous, but it lasts about ten minutes, and then the politicians go and make fun of each other for an hour. Still, a final State of the Union is a final State of the Union. The Obama years have been sort of a big deal, and now they're about to be over.

As if that weren't enough, the rest of the week will be dominated by the people seeking to succeed Obama. After what seemed like several geologic eras in which the 2016 campaign was happening but nobody was actually voting, the Iowa caucuses are finally around the corner, and we'll get to see whether the exceptionally unreliable polling data that has dominated the election so far was in any way accurate. (And also whether or not Donald Trump is the real deal.) So you can bet that, when the Republicans debate in South Carolina on Thursday, there will be a new scent of desperation in the air. People like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie will be flailing extra-hard trying to cut through. Marco Rubio will have definitely prepared 14 different jokes about his shoes. Ted Cruz, Iowa frontrunner, will be attempting to act like a non-repellant human being. Donald Trump will not be making that attempt. It might get crazy.

Hillary Clinton and her backup singers will be getting together twice this week—once, on Monday, when they'll be in Iowa for a forum hosted by Fusion (full disclosure: I work there), and once on Sunday, where the Democratic National Committee has once again chosen a weekend before a federal holiday as the proper time to give people a look at its candidates in debate. The Democratic chit-chats have been, to quote a phrase, quite low energy in comparison to the GOP bloodbaths, but it will still be worth tuning in to see if Bernie Sanders—who is giving Clinton more of a run for her money than either of them probably imagined—will do anything to really try and knock her down a peg.

If all of that made you feel slightly dizzy and stressed, just get used to it. 2016 is going to be like this all the time.

By Jack Mirkinson

Jack Mirkinson is a writer living in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @jackmirkinson.

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