Obama's Wish List Means Nada

President Obama
With the Congress sitting on its hands, don’t expect too much from the State of the Union Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Talking to plants or, for that matter, a comatose patient is said to be a good deed even if the quiescent don't "hear" in the conventional meaning of the word. In a sense, that's what will happen when Barack Obama delivers his fifth State of the Union address at the end of the month.

It's the most widely viewed presidential speech and it probably won't move the ficus or EKG monitor very much, let alone boost his approval ratings or stir Congress to action. The legislative branch is so much like a potted plant that its mere passage of a budget, expected later this winter, is cause for self-congratulations which is like the congenital truant who applauds himself for coming to class once.

The Washington that Obama speaks to later this month is in a moribund state and that's why the president was reduced to telling his cabinet last week that "I have a phone and a pen," a phrase which made him sound less like the commander in chief and more like 11-year-old, who also has both. The president, of course, meant that he has the power of persuasion (said phone) and power of unilateral action through executive orders (said pen).

But when a president has to enunciate his power, it's generally a bad sign. Teddy Roosevelt never said speak loudly and carry an iPhone.

With this address, the president is more deserving of pity than ridicule. Except for renaming post offices, Obama can't pass much in the way of bills through the tea party-infused House, led by Republican Speaker John Boehner, or through the Senate, where Republican Leader Mitch McConnell can use the once rare and now commonplace filibuster to stymie legislation even if it commands a majority of supporters. (There's been some curtailment of the filibuster but only when it comes to appointing personnel.)

Obama advisors tell Newsweek to look for the president to offer more environmental directives and health-and-safety regulations--a pen-driven paean to labor and the left but also popular policy in the wake of disasters like West Virginia's water contamination crisis this month.

Given that, what can the state of the union address do for Obama and for the country? The answer is not nothing -- but not much either.

To understand Obama's dilemma as he approaches his speech on Jan 28, it's important to know the history of this odd bit of Americana. Derived from the monarch's address to parliament, the Constitutional Convention included a mandate that the president report on the State of the Union.

While George Washington used the dictum to deliver an address, Thomas Jefferson put an end to the practice of a spoken statement, considering it too king-like, and simply sent a statement to Congress. It was, in essence, the State of the Union PowerPoint until Woodrow Wilson revived the tradition of actually delivering an address to Congress. It was a profound development, shifting the spotlight to the executive which is something Wilson favored, having concluded as a political science professor that Congress had too much clout.

But Wilson delivered the address at noon, which made sense in a newspaper age. It was Lyndon Johnson who made the modern address that we know today by giving it during prime time. In the three-commercial-broadcast-network universe of the 1960s and 1970s, that meant a president could capture a nation's attention.

Presidents used it to enhance their status as a leader of government and society. Nixon declared a "war on crime" as a citizen and a sovereign. (He also declared war on cancer, too.) Ronald Reagan introduced the tradition of inviting everyday heroes to the chamber and pointing them out so that Congress could applaud. It was the president as talk show host.

With its plumage--all of Congress is there along with Ambassadors to the U.S., the Supreme Court, et al --it became the royal affair Jefferson feared. While it's rarely brought a bump in the polls to presidents, it's been helpful for rebuilding their images.

In an age of short clips, few Americans ever see their presidents speak at length. The pomp has a payoff: The lengthy speech gives Americans a chance to see the president looking presidential, literally elevated above the Congress. It may not result in immediate popularity but it's an opportunity no president would forego because of it's immediacy and theatrics. It helped Bill Clinton fend off impeachment in 1998. Seeing him arrive in the chamber with a long list of policy goals made him seem serious in contrast to the Republican mob eager for his head.

Obama will surely hit some high notes, too, and they shouldn't be ignored. Democratic advisers say he may call for the federal government to demand its suppliers pay a higher minimum wage--a move that could affect half a million Americans right away and put pressure to raise the minimum wage across the board.

There will be more ideas about putting money in the housing market and a call for legislation to overturn the Supreme Court's controversial ruling last year striking down a key part of the Voting Rights Act. Since Congress won't hike the wage, this may be Obama's best option, and the politics of it, at least, are likely to sell well.

As a nod to bipartisanship, he'll offer best wishes to his friend, Sen.Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican who announced this week that he would leave the Senate early because of health issues.

The case of Coburn shows the problems with Washington and what Obama is up against when he delivers his speech. When he was in Newt Gingrich's House in the 1990s, Coburn, a physician, was a critic of Gingrich from the right on spending and was a vehement social conservative. These days, relative to the tea party, Coburn is a flaming moderate, an apostate, who has said he's open to tax hikes, under the right circumstances, and who voted for the Simpson-Bowles budget commission plan.

Oklahoma has gay marriage for now, thanks, to a court order. But it will undoubtedly choose someone to the right of Coburn to replace him. For Obama there are fewer friendly faces in the audience.

Congress is only likely to become more conservative this year. One Democratic consultant says that every one of the party's Senate candidates should be running scared this year, not just the usual suspects like Arkansas's Mark Pryor or Louisiana's Mary Landrieu or North Carolina's Kay Hagan, who did not travel with the president this week when he spoke in her home state.

The speech only works if there's a modest expectation that something might get done. Otherwise it's like a comic working a dead room. Yes there's applause for good lines. but if everyone knows it's for naught, then that's tougher and tougher for Obama.

It's not just the culture of Washington that is making life harder for Obama. He's made it harder for himself. Consider American manufacturing and the trade deficit. There are important issues for the American culture and economy. And, although manufacturing is often touted as a bright spot in the economy, it's less glowing than it at first appears.

Obama promised to add a million manufacturing jobs in his second term. He added just 77,000 in 2013. What comeback there have been are owing mostly to the auto industry but not to other sectors.

And if the trade deficit has eased a bit it's because of the natural gas fracking boom curbing our demand for foreign oil, not because of any diminished appetite in our demand for foreign goods. The trade deficit with China alone was $315 billion in 2012.

On big issues like clamping down on what's widely seen as Chinese currency manipulation or forging and enforcing tougher trade agreements, the Obama administration has been "short on follow through," says Scott Paul, President of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, who notes that the administration is well short of its own goals with the public-private partnership hubs of the kind Obama toured this week--goals he outlined in last year's State of the Union speech.

And therein lies the problem of an address in a year where Congress sits on its hands. Last year Obama pushed for gun control. It was two months after the Newtown massacre, of course. Nada. Immigration reform. Nada. Tax reform. Nada. Entitlement reform. Nada. He warned about the sequester but that arrived nonetheless. He wrung his hands over Syria, but that seems worse, as does Afghanistan and Iraq.

The speech demands a swell of promises that are sometimes fulfilled but are doomed when Washington is this paralyzed. Can unilateral action make up the difference? We'll see.

Or maybe Jefferson was right and the state of the union address should go back to being a memo.