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OPINION - State of the Union: Divided

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) – The State of The Union is this: we are a divided people. What’s happening in our government is, indeed, a reflection of us. The northeast and west coast – America’s population and cultural centers – are liberal. Our heartland is where traditional American values lie. The gulf between them has never been wider. The people we send to Congress can’t bridge the differences. 

But the President bears a special burden in times of division. He’s the only person in Washington elected by the entire country. He has the best chance of bringing the nation together. Instead he’s sown the seeds of cynicism, promising to us that this signature achievement would lower our health care premiums and “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. If you like your health plan, you can keep your health plan. Period.” This isn’t a stretching-of-the-truth. It’s a lie. And it’s the latest example of why we are cynical. 

And that’s the problem with the “I have a pen, I have a phone” approach that’s already been telegraphed by the Obama Administration. “The pen” represents executive orders. The President will nibble at the fringe of policies where he can’t get his agenda through Congress. While this is executive overreach, it’s important to keep perspective. Executive orders can be undone by the next president. And they deal with only narrow areas within the federal government. (Example: the number of federal contractors who earned only minimum wage and will now be bumped to $10.10-an-hour is very, very small.) But an executive order is an end-run around Congress. It will make it even more difficult to get things through on Capitol Hill. It’s human nature to dig in your heals when you’re being marginalized. 

The minimum wage increase for federal contractors is outrageous, and it also shows how impotent the executive order can be. Suppose your company already has a long-term contract with the federal government to run a cafeteria at a military base, or to do seasonal work maintaining trails in our national parks, or to provide janitorial services at a federal office building. Now, surprise, by the stroke of the Presidential pen your labor costs have risen 29%. These costs will be passed on to us, the taxpayers, when these contracts come up for renewal. 

“The phone” is either a metaphor for reaching out to Congress, or rallying support from the American people. That brings us right back to where we started. We’re a divided people. The President’s opponents are unpersuadable. He doesn’t have the skills to win people over to his side. Compromise seems impossible from either side. 

Tonight’s state of the union address is less of an agenda than a reminder that we’re actually entering a holding pattern that will last two years until a new leader takes office. This is the start of Barack Obama’s long lame-duck period. 

Chris Conley 

Image: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks on the government funding impasse at M. Luis Construction, a local small business in Rockville, Maryland REUTERS/Jansen via wsau.com