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President Didn't Show Willingness To Bargain In SOTU Speech

Michael Bitzer
Michael Bitzer

The power of the presidency has been described as “the power to persuade,” but how presidents use that persuasion, not just within the government but also with the nation as a whole, can be a determining factor in their successful use of leadership.

The State of the Union provides the most notably activity for a president to engage in this power of persuasion.  Traditionally, the address commands the nation’s attention and allows the chief executive to provide his vision of what the coming year may bring, typically through legislation but also through a focus on his priorities, whether they pass Congress or not.

Most States of the Union lack the notoriety of inaugural addresses: FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear” to Kennedy’s “ask not” to Reagan’s “government isn’t the solution to our problems, government is the problem.”  But hardly anyone remembers State of the Union one-liners or key phrases; perhaps the most current one that many may remember was the “axis of evil” denoted by President George W. Bush just four months after the 9/11 attacks. 

While the address is a constitutionally-mandated requirement, States of the Union have become more of a laundry list of wishes and plans that presidents put forth, and in our recent times of divided government, it’s more often considered a D.O.A. list.

That doesn’t stop presidents from commanding the nation’s attention and using the “power of persuasion.”  But when political scientist Richard Neustadt coined the phrase, he added a critical component to understanding that presidential power.

The power to persuade is ultimately about the power to bargain, and this corollary symbolizes the ultimate design of our constitutional republic: that of not getting everything you want, but rather getting as much as you can and realizing the other party may get something that they want.

Because when you divide power between different players in a game, the game will ultimately ensure that there’s conflict. But winners can come out of the game, if they are willing to bargain and ultimately create compromise.

President Obama’s speech was a classic laundry list, with assertions of other presidential power laden inside of it. 

From the threat of veto against ramped-up sanctions to Iran to declaring a year of action, even if he has to go it alone, Obama’s speech seemed like his grocery list. It includes something from every aisle that he wants, but no real sense of what the meal was beyond a buffet.

Presidents understand and command power at their disposal, and the power of persuasion is always on display with lines like “Give America a raise!” But what President Obama didn’t seem to fully connect to Neustradt’s dictum was the second half: Bargaining.  If the president had said that he wanted an increase in the minimum wage and then offered to accept a meaningful Republican idea, that would have not only been a sign of bargaining, but something grander: Compromise. 

And that would have been accentuated by ending with the profound story of Army Ranger Cory Remsburg. In quoting Remsburg’s belief that “nothing in life that’s worth anything is easy,” the president could have demonstrated the power of that simple statement to express his ability to bargain.

“I know I’m not going to get everything I want, but I want to work towards something, and I’m willing to politically sacrifice, because it’s easier to demand everything and not get anything than it is to settle with the other side and actually achieve something,” the president said.

Perhaps, one day, a president may come to members of Congress and acknowledge they won’t get everything they want, but use their power to bargain with the opposite party with the attention of the entire nation.

And then maybe Americans will give their government a multi-minute standing ovation for actually achieving what the system is designed to reward: Compromise.