President Barack Obama has proven powers when it comes to delivering a brilliant speech, but governing is another matter altogether. His fifth State of the Union address, heard in Spain in the early hours of Wednesday morning, amounted to an implicit declaration of impotence before a hostile Congress, rather than being an expression of an ambitious political program. One objective that is clear among his priorities is that of narrowing the gap between rich and poor, something that the president considers intolerable. But mere executive orders, to which he has said he will resort to compensate the lack of parliamentary support, are a manifestly insufficient tool.
With a speech focused on domestic matters, Obama has attempted to inject vigor into his waning agenda, and present himself as a leader who can govern in disregard of a Congress that ignores his calls for cooperation. But this is an illusion.
Executive orders represent a political handicap as a method of governing, and are not suitable for really relevant initiatives. Not only do they lack the reach and permanence of parliamentary legislation; they also imply an acknowledgement that the president is incapable of enlisting Congress to support his priorities. Obama thus runs the serious risk of further reducing his influence in a legislative branch dominated by the Republicans, and of accelerating the decline of his presidency, which will be definitively bound hand and foot if the Democrats lose control of the Senate in the decisive November elections.
Executive orders represent a political handicap as a method of governing
With his popularity ratings at a new low, the president also has a problem of credibility, as reflected in the opinion polls. Most of the objectives announced in his previous State of the Union address have not been fulfilled. On many occasions prior to Wednesday, Obama has stated that “climate change is a fact,” without offering any solutions. Nor did anything come of the touted measures for gun control following the Newtown massacre. Yet again, Obama has promised to shut down the infamous prison camp at Guantanamo. And the situation in Syria — which saw him come very close to ordering air strikes five months ago, in a bid to halt a genocidal regime in its tracks — got just one line in his speech.
The “year of action” announced by Obama runs the risk of going down the same road. The possible exception is a minimal agreement in Congress on immigration, given the Republican refusal to grant citizenship to the 11 million adult immigrants who are currently in the country illegally.