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Obama Expected to Use State of Union to Boost Political Fortunes


U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting with members of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration at the White House in Washington, Jan. 22, 2014.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting with members of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration at the White House in Washington, Jan. 22, 2014.

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday before a joint session of Congress with millions of Americans watching on television. This year’s speech offers the president an opportunity to boost his sagging political fortunes.

The year 2013 took a political toll on Obama. The difficult rollout of his signature achievement, the health care reform law, was a major factor in sending his public approval to new lows.

Recent public opinion polls show the president’s job approval rating hovering around 40 percent, a weak number for an incumbent president.

The latest national poll from Quinnipiac University found 40 percent of those surveyed approve of the job Obama is doing, compared to 54 percent who disapprove.

Quinnipiac pollster Tim Malloy says the president gets negative ratings on several key issues.

“The president remains in negative territory now on the economy, the federal budget as well as foreign policy," Malloy said. "Registered voters in big numbers still give the president a ‘thumbs down’ on health care.”

Obama is expected to focus on economic issues in his State of the Union address. Amid signs the U.S. economy is starting to pick up, the president will likely emphasize the need to make economic opportunity available to all Americans.

The administration intends to focus on the issue of income inequality in the United States leading up to the November congressional midterm elections.

A recent congressional study found the wealthiest 1 percent of the population increased its income by 275 percent over the last 30 years. At the time, income levels for the 60 percent of Americans in the middle class rose by just under 40 percent.

The Brookings Institution's Thomas Mann says Democrats hope focusing on the economy in general, and economic fairness in particular, will help their candidates in November.

“How is the economy doing? And that is both jobs and growth and wages," Mann said. "But behind that is the economic inequality and the ‘two America’s’ issue.”

Opposition Republicans say the economy and creating jobs are priorities for them as well in 2014. But they are also determined to keep the spotlight on problems associated with the health care law, even though they acknowledge some earlier problems are being corrected.

Democrats hope that the fixes to the law are firmly established before the midterm elections. But analyst Stuart Rothenberg expects many Republican candidates to continue to focus attacks on the Affordable Care Act as a key part of their election strategy.

“I am skeptical it will be an asset by the time the midterms roll around," Rothenberg said. "It might be an asset in five years or 10 years, but not between now and the midterms.”

The State of the Union offers the president his best chance to lay out an election year political agenda that includes domestic and foreign policy goals.

Analysts say foreign policy challenges for the president could also have an impact on this year’s elections, including efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program as well as the continuing terrorist threat posed by al Qaida and other groups around the world.

Historically, the president’s party loses seats in midterm elections during a second presidential term. Cook Political Report analyst David Wasserman told VOA's Encounter program that the voting coalition of young, minority and women voters that twice helped to elect Obama is less likely to turn out in congressional election years.

“And if their proportions go way down, then the electorate could be two to three points more Republican than it was two years ago without any opinion having actually changed, and that is a real harmful prospect for Democrats across the board,” Wasserman said.

Most analysts favor Republicans to maintain or even increase their margin of control in the House of Representatives.

The real battle will be for control of the Senate. Democrats hold a majority in the Senate, but many of the 35 Senate races this year take place in states where Republicans have an advantage.
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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.

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