How Obama Will Disappoint Liberals

The Atlantic Wire

You can bet on two things from President Obama's State of the Union: post-speech hype about how he's making an aggressive case for liberal policies followed by liberal disappointment at Obama's policies. "The President has always viewed his Inaugural Address and the State of the Union Address as two acts in the same play, and you can expect him to expand on the issues he raised in the Inaugural," Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer told Politico's Mike Allen, raising expectations of a sequel to liberal crowd-pleasing lines like "preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action" with calls to action in areas like climate change. The lead-up in the media is following Pfeiffer's lead. "If Inauguration Day marked the official rollout of a tougher, bolder President Barack Obama, look for him to take it a step further on Tuesday night... [and] lay out an unabashedly liberal Democratic agenda," Reuters says. After Obama's second inaugural speech "sent liberal hearts aflutter," the Christian Science Monitor writes, "Expect no less a progressive call to action in his State of the Union address." 

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Well, it might be psychologically healthy for liberals to expect a little less. Jumpy staffers for Democrats on Capitol are spending Tuesday afternoon passing along gossip about what will disappoint them tonight. One point of gossip whipping around legislative offices, a staffer told the Wire, is that Obama will use his speech tonight to announce the approval of the $7 billion Keystone XL oil pipeline as part of a larger deal with Canada to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Some in the Canadian press have speculated that this was coming -- Financial Post editor Terence Corcoran predicted Monday Canada would be getting a carbon tax in exchange for the pipeline, and told readers to watch for clues in Obama's speech. John Kerry, whose State Department is in charge of the federal review of the project, said last Friday that a decision on the pipeline was coming -- soon. "I don’t want to pin down precisely when, but I assure you, in the near term," Kerry said after meeting with the Canadian foreign affairs minister. Former Obama economic adviser Larry Summers argued for the pipeline's approval in The Washington Post Sunday. 

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With Republicans pressing for approval (House Speaker John Boehner announced last month he would bring supporters of the pipeline to the speech) the environmentalists will be disappointed to see the President they thought was going to be get serious about climate change announce approval of something they have been fighting against for year, even if it is a part of Obama's attempt to get serious about climate change. A protest is scheduled for February 17 to urge Obama to reject Keystone. Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, seemed to hope Kerry would block the project, calling Kerry "one of the strongest champions for climate action in the Senate."

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But even if the worst fears over Keystone, the liberals who Obama, according to the conventional wisdom of the last three weeks, is embracing in his second term have good reason to anticipate being disappointed. Because, while Obama may drop phrases that get applause from more liberal members of Congress, he is not an all-powerful governing wizard and it is easy to plot out how compromises will leave liberals less than enthused about Obama's second term.

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  • One of Obama's guests at the State of the Union will be a police officer wounded at the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting. While Obama will press for laws to stop gun violence, he still has to deal with a Republican House of Representatives. There seems to be some Republican support for universal background checks. An assault weapons ban might get a vote in the Senate. But it's almost certain Obama won't push for an handgun ban, and handguns kill far more people than assault rifles that capture our attention after mass shootings. 
  • Obama will call for pulling 34,000 troops out of Afghanistan in his speech. There are no reports that he'll pull out drones from nearly the entire Middle East or get rid of his "kill list." The office to close Guantanamo has itself been closed instead.
  • When Obama calls for "balanced deficit reduction," as Pfeiffer says, that means he'll call for more tax revenue and spending cuts in the deal to fix the sequester. These cuts are unlikely to be popular with the liberal base, and Republicans have said new revenue is a no-go

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  • There will be problems implementing Obamacare next year. Many states are behind schedule in setting up their health care exchanges. Most states want the federal government to do it for them. Many governors have refused money to expand Medicaid to more people.

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