Why Republicans Will Hate Obama’s State of the Union

Obama’s got a heavy lift, but here’s what Republicans have to deal with at the State of the Union.

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WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 28: U.S. President Barack Obama arrives to deliver the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on January 28, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Here’s a prediction about President Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union that isn’t very bold:

No matter what he says in Tuesday night’s address, odds are that Republicans will openly pan it—but not actually find much to critique on the merits.

Although Obama and Republicans are expected to focus on “income inequality” in the upcoming political season, it’s hard to see where they’ll find common ground, because if there’s a truism in the Obama era, it’s that his opponents are uninterested, even, in “looking good themselves if it means that he looks good” in the process.

Clearly, there’s less enthusiasm for Obama than there once was. His approval rating, according to a new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, is a lackluster 43 percent, and it’s unlikely that he’ll move the needle significantly with one State of the Union address. But he’s still more popular than Congress—which has a 13 percent approval rating—and on the issue where the president is most vulnerable, 54 percent of Americans still say that they want to fix, but not ditch, Obamacare.

What Republicans will hate most isn’t what’s in Obama's SOTU. It’s that he's the one giving it.

Here’s why:

They Have to Sit There and Listen

The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan—President Ronald Reagan’s former speechwriter—dismally previewed Obama’s speech by writing that it’s doomed before he even gives it because the president is, as she describes him, “a nonstop windup talk machine.” That’s a pretty harsh assessment.

But since you could probably describe any president that way, I suspect that part of what disturbs her, and Republicans generally, is that State of the Union night reminds Republicans that despite their best efforts to unseat him, Obama is still the only president since Dwight D. Eisenhower to win the popular vote in back-to-back elections. And it’s the one night of the year where he’s got the nation’s (or, at least, the TV networks’) undivided attention, and when he’s accorded all the pomp and fanfare that goes with being both head of government and head of state. And that after this SOTU, he’ll be delivering the speech two more times.

3 Rebuttals Equal No Rebuttal

If there were a clear Republican rejoinder to Obama’s policy agenda, then there’d be no need for three “official” GOP responses to the president’s speech. But the fact that there’ll be an official official response by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, an official Tea Party response from Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and an official Rand Paul response offered by, well, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is as sure a sign as any that there’s still no cohesive policy alternative to Obama beyond general talking points about shrinking big government.

They’ll Miss Obama

And in terms of offering that alternative, Republicans are entering what is likely to be the last election cycle where opposition to any and all things Obama-related will be a successful campaign platform.

Although Republicans tried to impeach President Bill Clinton and are learning to loathe would-be President Hillary Clinton, for five years Obama, as a political foil, has been an all-purpose totem for them to bark at. And as a party, they’ve reversed course on almost any given issue—from domestic surveillance to the individual mandate—in direct correlation to Obama’s proximity to it.

After November, there’s no toothpaste left in that tube.

To be fair, there’s also something Democrats won’t like about Obama’s speech. They’re likely to praise it, but they know, deep down, that Obama isn’t offering the progressive agenda that they’d like to see, and that whatever he plans, they don’t have much chance to pass most of it, anyway.

Democrats face an uphill climb trying to drag the Affordable Care Act and other parts of their platform over the finish line in the midterm elections. But for one day, at least, the State of the Union gives Obama the political high ground.

And Republicans—who have two more Obama SOTUs, a dicey 2016 primary and a fairly scarce supply of fresh policy ideas to tout—will have to watch and wait for their next turn at the podium.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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