President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, and his recently announced “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, might be considered his response to the prolonged inflexibility of Congress during the course of his administration. Designed specifically to target young males of color, it aims to help them economically and educationally, two areas in which assistance is undoubtedly needed. In order to do this, Obama wants to sidestep the legislative arm that thus far has rendered his previous efforts ineffective by tapping an overlooked resource: huge charitable organizations known as foundations.
America’s democratic process is based, at least in theory, on the principle of egalitarianism: the belief that everyone deserves equal rights and opportunities. This plays out better in theory than in real life however, as it is a considerable hurdle to get groups of people with different opinions to move in the same direction. For Obama, it is telling that his highest approval rating to date is 69 percent (according to the Gallup poll as of 1-22-09), compared to 89 percent for George H.W. Bush (90 percent, 2-28-91), and 90 percent for George W. Bush (9-21-01).
This may reflect the comparatively brief governmental experience Obama had prior to entering the Oval Office (seven years as an Illinois State Senator from 1997 to 2004, and three years as junior U.S. Senator from 2005 to 2008). In comparison, Lyndon Baines Johnson had some 23 years as a Texas Congressman and U.S. Senator before becoming John F. Kennedy’s running mate in the 1960 Presidential election. By the time he ascended to the presidency, LBJ had the act of persuasion down to a science, using what has become known as “the Johnson Treatment” to bend friend and foe to do his political bidding.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with whom Obama is often compared, had the luxury of democratic majority in the House and Senate, as well as the support, at least initially, of a seasoned vice president, John Nance Garner. “Cactus Jack,” as he was known, had some 30 years in Congress under his belt with contacts and experience to share. With this in mind, it is possibly inaccurate to balance Johnson and Roosevelt with a chief executive confronted with law makers so focused on undermining his every move.
Obama’s gifts as a politician—especially his oratorical skills—are widely acknowledged, even among his adversaries. Alex Castellanos, a Cuban American political consultant for the Republican Party and commentator for the 24-hour news channel CNN said as much during his coverage of the State of the Union.
“I think I’ve said before that I think a speech by Barack Obama is a lot like sex, the worst there ever was is still excellent,” he waxed provocatively, generating a quizzical look from his colleague, Newt Gingrich.
Speaking ability and charisma not-with-standing, Obama has consistently failed to win the cooperation of the Republican power base. Nowhere is this more apparent then in the long protracted battle to augment a healthcare plan. The content of his annual presentation to the joint session of Congress alluded to this, and give an inkling of his plans to correct this situation.