State of the Union 2014

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Watching the State of the Union — a Canadian guide iPolitics Insight

By | Jan 27, 2014

He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.
Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution

Each president since George Washington has given an ‘Annual Message’ to Congress (a practice also followed by governors in some states).

Washington and John Adams spoke to joint sessions of Congress. Thomas Jefferson thought the practice too “monarchial” so he sent in a written report that was followed by subsequent presidents through the rest of the 19th century.

In 1913, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, resumed the practice of a formal address and, for the most part, so have his successors.

Since Franklin Roosevelt the speech is given in late January or early February. The SOTU acronym – now a Beltway buzzword –  is attributed to Roosevelt.

The SOTU has evolved with technology. Calvin Coolidge’s address in 1923 was the first broadcast by radio. Harry Truman’s address in 1947 was the first broadcast by television. President George W. Bush made the first address carried by internet livecast in 2002 and then in 2004 in high-definition television.

This year’s internet version will feature an enhanced version of the speech featuring graphics, data and stats and be featured on FacebookYouTube and the White House Google+ page.

You can follow it on Twitter@WhiteHouse. After the speech, the White house will stream a live “Open for Questions” on

The SOTU: Play by Play

The process begins with a concurrent resolution of Congress setting the date and time “for receiving such communication as the President of the United States shall be pleased to make to them”.

On Tuesday evening, members of the House will assemble in their chamber. At approximately 830PM EST, the Deputy Sergeant-at-arms announces the arrival of the Vice-President and members of the Senate. Traditionally the members sit by party (the demarcation visibly demonstrated by the contrast between those who clap their hands and those who do not) although members sat together for the 2011 SOTU in solidarity after the January shooting of former Representative Gabby Giffords.

Next into the Chamber comes the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, Chief Justice John Roberts and the Associate Justices, the Cabinet and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who are seated in front of the Speaker’s rostrum. By tradition, one cabinet member is designated to stay in a secure location  – the ‘survivor’ to ensure continuity. Since 9-11, this has also included a few members of Congress.

Just after 9PM, the House Sergeant-at-Arms will announce in stentorian voice: “Mister Speaker, the President of the United States!”

President Obama will then make his way slowly through the crowd patting backs and shaking hands and take his place at the House Clerk’s Desk. Immediately behind him at the Speaker’s Desk sit Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker John Boehner.

Speaker Boehner will then proclaim: “Members of Congress, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the President of the United States.”

The Speech

The SOTU is one part record of the Administration’s achievements, two parts aspirational and, at its best, inspirational for those who are listening. George Washington favoured brevity. His 1790 address – 1089 words –  was less then fifteen minutes. The longest – at 9190 words- was delivered by Bill Clinton in 1995. Most are closer to an hour.

Most addresses focus on domestic policy.  Lyndon Johnson declared a ‘war on poverty’ in 1964 and given the fiftieth anniversary President Obama may well make a reference to it.

There is usually a foreign policy component. In December 1823, James Monroe declared that any future attempts by the Europeans to colonize or interfere in the Americas would be seen as aggression – it became known as the Monroe Doctrine. In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed the ‘Four Freedoms’. In 2002, George W. Bush described North Korea, Iran and Iraq as the ‘axis of evil.’

With an eye for stagecraft, Ronald Reagan (who also moved the Inauguration from the East Front to the West Front of the Capitol facing down the Mall) personalized this remarks with references to people strategically placed in the balcony close to the First Lady, including Lenny Skutnik, the hero of the Air Florida flight that crashed into the Potomac in January 1982. Subsequent presidents have followed this practice. Last year, 26 guests were invited to sit with First Lady Michelle Obama.

Since Lyndon Johnson’s 1966 SOTU, the opposition party has followed the speech with a televised address of rebuttal. Last year Senator Mario Rubio of Florida gave the GOP response in both English and Spanish. This year Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) will give the GOP response. Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) will speak on behalf of the Tea Party while Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) who spoke for the Tea Party last year will give his own response.

Preview of 2014 SOTU

White House Senior Advisor Dan Pfeiffer says the themes of this year’s speech can be captured in three words: opportunity, action, and optimism. Pfeiffer blogs: “The core idea is as American as they come: If you work hard and play by the rules, you should have the opportunity to succeed. Your ability to get ahead should be based on your hard work and ambition and who you want to be, not just the raw circumstance of who you are when you’re born.”

This is an election year and the President knows that to achieve the legacy he wants, he will need to win back the House of Representatives and hold the Senate. No easy task given that current polls put Americans approval of the job he is doing at 44 percent and only 30 percent think the country is heading in the right directions.

According to the Washington Post, Pfeiffer attributes part of Obama’s problem to “too often governed more like a prime minister than a president.”

The SOTU is key to the reset. John Podesta, who has returned to the White House to help the President told the Post that “a State of the Union creates a contract with the public about what you say and what you will do. In that sense it is like a campaign, and it disciplines the priorities of the White House by creating an operation manual for the year ahead.”

While the speech is expected to focus on issues like inequality, immigration, health care and the international scene, Canadians will want to listen for references to trade, energy and the environment.

Canadian interests: Trade, the Border and Detroit Bridge

Legislation is currently before Congress to restore to the President the power to submit trade deals to Congress for an up-or-down vote without amendment. It’s called trade promotion authority (TPA) and Presidents have used it to negotiate trade agreements, including the Canada-US FTA and NAFTA.

President Obama needs TPA to secure the trade deals on services (TISA), with Europe (TTIP), and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  The problem is that many Democrats see trade deals as means for outsourcing and loss of jobs.

Trade generates jobs and with the American public consistently putting the economy and jobs at the top of their priority list. The President promised in the 2010 SOTU to double American exports.

In the case of NAFTA, the economic evidence overwhelming concludes that NAFTA created better jobs and lower costs generating growth for all three partners.

A Canadian Embassy study (2012) concluded eight million jobs in the US depend on trade with Canada and that Canada is the top export market for 38 American states.

Access to the US market is always a top Canadian priority. A pair of initiatives launched by the President and Prime Minister in February 2011 put aside the false choice between security and trade, acknowledging that economic security is vital to North American competitiveness.

The initiatives are aimed at improving border access and regulatory cooperation based on the principle of “cleared once, inspected twice”.  While they are making progress, both initiatives require another top-level political push but this may not happen until next month’s North American Leaders’ summit in Mexico City.

Trade depends on good infrastructure. We are waiting for the Administration to commit funding to the US customs plaza for the new Second Crossing between Detroit.

The Detroit-Windsor gateway is our busiest commercial gateway. Trade passing through it is greater than USA trade with Japan.

Michigan’s share of the bridge cost, estimated to be $550 million, will be paid by the Government of Canada and recouped through bridge tolls. Any cost overruns or revenue shortfalls will be paid by Canada. The bridge, built with U.S. and Canadian steel, will create 10,000 – 15,000 construction jobs in Michigan.

Revived as a priority in President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address last year, climate change and its nexus with energy and the environment is likely to be discussed.

Canadian Interests: Energy and XL Pipeline

After the unsuccessful effort at climate change legislation in the first term, action has shifted from Congress to regulatory change effected through the Environmental Protection Agency.

From the Canadian perspective we want to ensure that our big hydro projects in British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec (and eventually Labrador) are included in the definition of renewable energy standard.

Our immediate interest is the permit for the XL pipeline and during his recent visit (January 16) to Washington Foreign Minister John Baird said “the time for a decision on Keystone is now, even if it’s not the right one”.

This is the second Keystone XL application. The first application was denied in January, 2012 after Nebraska expressed concerns about its routing through the Ogallala Aquifer. The route was changed and Nebraska has come on-side.

The permit for the pipeline is granted through the State Department. Foreign Minister John Baird raised it during his first meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry in February 2012.

In his recent news conference with John Baird, Secretary Kerry remained non-committal saying that the process is “fair, transparent, and accountable” and that a decision would be made in the “near term”.

In his recent speech to the US Chamber of Commerce Foreign Minister Baird argued that the pipeline project will have no significant environmental impact. He noted that Canadian oil displaces offshore oil imports – countries that are less reliable than Canada. In the absence of a pipeline Western Canadian and U.S. Bakken oil is shipped, noted Baird, to the U.S. Gulf Coast by rail. The New York TImes outlined the perils of transport by rail in ‘Accidents Surge as Oil Industry Takes the Train’.