Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The State of Us

Tonight, President Barack Obama will give his annual State of the Union address from the nation's Capitol, just hours after Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick delivers his State of the Commonwealth address from the Massachusetts Statehouse.

Such addresses are historically designed as a check on executive power, as a way for the legislative branch to make sure it knows what the chief executive is doing and how the government is operating.

But these days, everybody knows the state of the union and the commonwealth. It doesn't take a fancy speech to a joint session of Congress for everyday Americans to know that our economic recovery is incomplete, that the world is still a dangerous place, and that we have a lot left to accomplish. It doesn't take lofty rhetoric for Bay Staters to know that the Massachusetts unemployment rate is higher than the national average for the first time in six years.

As citizens, we already know. We live it every day. What we’d like to know if what these two leaders intend to do to fix it. We need to know what their vision is for government and if we can really trust them to deliver the goods and make our lives better (even if it means making government do less, not more).

And, for both men, that task presents great challenges.

Take President Barack Obama. His speech tonight takes place in an environment where he eschews blame for a profound lack of accomplishment, even though he has served in office for longer than the entire time Abraham Lincoln served as President. He has failed to paint a vision for how he wants America to look by the end of his presidency, even though his remaining term is longer than the entire time John F. Kennedy served as President. After Benghazi and Obamacare and all of the other disasters plaguing the first year of his second term, a majority of the American people have reportedly lost confidence in Obama's ability to lead and his vision for government, and for good reason.

And, yet, Obama is stuck in a perennial political blame game. He appears poised to throw down the gauntlet to Congress and to call for a 'Year of Action' whereby Republicans either give in to his policy demands or face unilateral action by the White House to achieve the President's objectives.

Americans are tired of the blame game and the excuses and the political one-upsmanship. We deserve better from a president who promised to be post-partisan, not hyper-partisan. We think this “my way or the highway” approach by the Imperial President will backfire politically -- so long as the GOP comes up with a solid vision and plan of action of its own, starting with the rebuttal by House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA).

More locally, Deval Patrick faces challenges convincing the public that problems like those at DCF and the state drug lab aren't a sign of systemic mismanagement of the state. How couldn't they be? It's irresponsible to hold the Governor accountable for knowing where every at-risk child is every day or to make sure every drug case is being prosecuted well. But, it's entirely responsible to hold the Governor accountable for hiring people who will know where every DCF child is, every moment of every day. Failure is not acceptable, and there needs to be a strict consequence. Governor Patrick's calling for us to "rethink and reinvigorate" DCF is simply too little outrage, too little action, and too late to do any good.

Ultimately, we think both speeches will be more about legacy than vision. They will be more about papering over failures and trying to convince the public that times aren't that bad, and that government hasn't failed them that much, than about what government intends to do for we the people. Obama has a mid-term election coming up, and Patrick needs to hand off his administration to a like-minded progressive next year lest his work get undone.

Patrick also has a future ahead of him, with well-placed contacts already working in high-level political positions in Washington. Is tonight’s speech really just his last word as Governor, or is it more a first draft and a test run of other speeches yet to come? When Patrick looks out into the audience, will he view a sea of legislators, or will he be dreaming of addressing another national political convention - this time for his own benefit? It will be interesting to find out, and only time will tell.

Whatever happens, don’t watch tonight’s speeches expecting any sense of contrition or unity or bold, grand visions for government. Expect a sharpening of political elbows and a line drawn in the sand, setting the prelude for a highly-competitive election season in 2014. Sadly, such is the state of our union and our commonwealth, and the two men giving speeches tonight are part of the problem not part of the solution.

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