Anyone who has been through this annual exercise at the White House would recognize the tell-tale signs. The phrase “I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take,” which came quite early in the speech in relation to energy and environmental policy, is the policy staffer’s worst nightmare in a State of the Union address. It’s your boss saying you failed. It means that after months of meetings and dozens of memos, the White House, OMB, and the relevant cabinet agencies couldn’t even agree on executive actions to take, let alone on a proposal to include in the budget or to press for in Congress. I thought it was strange that Obama would put that declaration of failure so early in the speech. Why not raise your key 2014 budget proposals first—that’s generally what the State of the Union is for—and then do cleanup on the issues that some constituencies want to hear about but that you weren’t able to pull off? If you look at State of the Union addresses from the past few decades, that’s usually how they work.
As the speech went on, though, the reason became clear: There were no 2014 budget proposals. The president didn’t even mention his forthcoming budget—again, that’s usually a big part of what this speech is for. And he didn’t make any significant proposal for reforming any government program, for launching any new one, ending any old one, or doing much of anything in particular that he hasn’t been pushing unsuccessfully for years. It was like an eighth-year State of the Union address, not a fifth-year one.
You have to try to cover up such things, of course, especially if you’re a Democrat, and so the president did speak of all manner of obnoxious federal micromanagement initiatives with fancy names—manufacturing hubs, a “partnership to rebuild America,” a challenge to “redesign America’s schools,” an “Energy Security Trust,” and so on. But you know what these things are? They’re nothing. They’re the headings that the wonks in a Democratic White House put at the top of otherwise blank memos at the beginning of a process that, months later, is supposed to end up with a budget and a State of the Union address. And here they were at the end of that process with barely more meat on their bones than when they started. Some of these proposals might “happen” and some of them will not, but there won’t be any difference between the two.