As President Obama returns briefly to Washington from vacation, he prepares for a campaign-like swing through three states to promote his upcoming State of the Union address. Obama will hit Michigan, Arizona and Tennessee with a focus on economic issues. The themes this week will likely preview one of his last addresses to Congress as his presidency winds down.
The White House believes that a series of unilateral executive actions at the end of 2014 have boosted Obama’s political capital and put the Republicans on the defensive as they prepare to assume control of Congress.
Following the Democrats’ landslide defeat in the midterms, President Obama unveiled a series of new initiatives which the White House believes have boosted his poll numbers. At the end of 2014, Obama’s approval rating in Gallup’s tracking poll was 48%, a high not seen since 2013. The White House wants this week’s tour to capitalize on this perceived momentum.
Obama’s current approval rating is an improvement of the past two years. Immediately prior to the midterms, Obama’s approval rating had settled at an average around 41%, just a couple points higher than George W. Bush at a similar point in their presidencies. Since the midterms, Obama has announced executive action on immigration, announced a climate deal with China, and moved to normalize relations with Cuba. The White House believes these steps have revived Obama’s political fortunes.
It isn’t clear, however, that any of these steps boosted Obama’s poll numbers. In reality, none of these steps made any substantive changes to existing policy. Moreover, Obama has enjoyed an uptick in his approval rating at the end of the every year of his presidency. Call it the “Christmas effect,” when voters are preoccupied with so many things beyond politics. With the exception of 2013, when he had just won reelection, Obama always gives back the higher approval ratings within the first month of the new year.
It is more likely that Obama’s higher approval ratings are a function of this phenomenon, rather than a move by voters towards his policies. Obama’s immigration order mostly preserves the current status quo for a few more years. His climate deal with China is vague and not binding. His rapprochement with Cuba doesn’t lift economic sanctions nor restore diplomatic relations. Obama’s action simply folded a strong hand, as the current Cuban government is in a desperate situation with the ongoing collapse of Venezuela.
According to the White House, Obama’s tour will focus on economic issues. In Detroit, Obama will again embrace the improving fortunes of the auto industry, a sector that is increasingly based in the non-union Southern states. In Phoenix, Obama will trumpet a housing recovery, even though that sector is looking increasingly shaky. In Tennessee, Obama will preview measures to boost education and jobs, even as his administration pushes legislation to dramatically increase the legal supply of low-skilled labor.
With Democrats out of power in Congress and across the country, Obama has few legislative prospects. In the coming months, both parties will turn their full attentions to the next presidential campaign, with politicians of both parties positioning themselves for the looming post-Obama political landscape. The President’s toolbox has been reduced to speeches, occasional but limited executive actions, and foreign policy.
Outside the spin of the White House, Obama’s upcoming tour promoting the ‘State of the Union’ is a bid to stay relevant. Obama has only two State of the Union addresses left in his presidency. No executive action can change that.