In Final State of the Union, Obama Provokes One of His Biggest Barriers: GOP Governors

Republican governors have fought the president’s vision for America since he first took office. But he continues to push even their most-resisted policies.
by | January 13, 2016
(A/Evan Vucci)

As President Barack Obama left the floor of the U.S. House following his final State of the Union address Tuesday night, he paused for a moment to look back at the chamber. “Let me look at this thing one last time,” he said. “That’s kind of cool.”

The term-limited president had promised that his annual speech would “focus on the future,” but Obama spent much of the evening looking back. The president confidently defended his administration’s record on the economy, foreign policy and his presidency’s signature health-care overhaul.

The past also crept into his vision for the future. His to-do list for the country included many prized proposals that died -- or at least stalled -- in the halls of state capitols.

The Democratic president called for expanding voting rights, reducing air pollution from greenhouse gases and requiring companies to offer benefits like paid family leave to their employees. He also called for better behavior in politics.

“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” he said.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who delivered the Republican response to the president’s speech, offered a civil, though pointed, critique of Obama’s record.

“Tonight President Obama spoke eloquently about grand things. He is at his best when he does that,” she said. “Unfortunately, the president’s record has often fallen far short of his soaring words.”

“As he enters his final year in office, many Americans are still feeling the squeeze of an economy too weak to raise income levels. We’re feeling a crushing national debt, a health-care plan that has made insurance less affordable and doctors less available, and chaotic unrest in many of our cities,” the governor added.

Haley invoked one of the current issues dividing Obama and Republican governors: the settlement of Syrian refugees. Haley is one of more than two dozen governors who asked the federal government in November not to relocate the displaced families in her state. She brought it up again Tuesday.

“In this age of terrorism, we must not let in refugees whose intentions cannot be determined,” she said.

Meanwhile, a Syrian refugee who now lives in Michigan was one of First Lady Michelle Obama’s guests in the gallery during the president’s speech. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, was the first governor to ask for a halt in settlements.

But both Haley, who is the daughter of immigrants, and the president defended immigrants generally and implicitly criticized Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims from traveling to the United States.

The deep divisions between the president and Republican governors date back to just weeks after Obama moved to the White House in 2009.

That history became relevant again Tuesday, when the president said both parties should be able to agree on ways to improve economic security. He suggested that laid-off workers should get job training and wage insurance, in addition to the unemployment insurance they now receive. But Republican governors balked at the idea of expanding unemployment insurance when Obama pushed for it as part of his 2009 stimulus package.

Resistance from states grew after the 2010 elections swept Republicans into control of governorships and legislatures in all but the most liberal states.

They will likely remain an obstacle for the president’s push for easier access to the ballot box. “We’ve got to make voting easier, not harder,” Obama said Tuesday. But it was GOP-led legislatures passed many of the restrictions on voting, including voter ID laws, in recent years. At least 20 states have imposed restrictions on voting rights since the 2010 Republican wave, according to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), which helps elect Democratic state lawmakers.

Carolyn Fiddler, a DLCC spokeswoman, made the partisan connection explicit in a statement issued after Obama’s speech. “The surest path to fulfilling the president’s goal of making voting easier is through the DLCC’s work to elect more Democratic majorities,” she wrote.

Another of Obama’s ideas for fixing the political system would be to “reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can't bankroll our elections.” But that has a political slant to it, too. Many Republicans argue that curbing campaign spending restricts free speech. Republicans also have vastly more sophisticated networks of “dark money” like those affiliated with the Koch brothers supporting their cause than Democrats do.

The president also advocated changing the way congressional districts are drawn to make them more politically competitive -- a push already happening at the state level. In Ohio, for example, voters recently approved an amendment to the state’s constitution, which was backed by both parties, to end some of the tactics that political parties use to increase their advantage in redistricting state legislative lines. Backers of that measure now want to apply a similar approach to drawing congressional districts. A court also ordered new maps for Florida and Virginia, among other states, and the issue is currently being debated by the U.S. Supreme Court. Republicans across the country have more to lose with new maps, because they largely controlled the once-a-decade process of drawing new districts in 2011.

One of the most striking political shifts in Obama’s presidency has been polarization over climate change. Obama returned to the subject Tuesday, alluding to a rule his administration issued to require states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal power plants.

“We’ve got to accelerate the transition away from dirty energy. Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future,” he said. “That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.”

Forty-five of the 50 states have taken sides in a court battle over the power plant rule, with Democratic states largely backing the measure and Republican states fighting it.

Fights over workplace issues don’t always fall as neatly along partisan lines, but liberal Democrats have fought to enact many of the same policies mentioned by Obama -- including higher minimum wages, paid family leave and equal pay laws -- at the state and local level.

The president stuck mostly to broad themes in his speech, staying away from detailed proposals during a year when the Washington establishment will focus most of its energy on the upcoming presidential race.

He reminded lawmakers of several proposals he has championed in recent years, including expanding pre-K, letting students attend two years of community college for free, overhauling criminal sentencing laws, stopping epidemics of heroin and opioid abuse, and lifting the trade embargo with Cuba.

As Obama rehashed many ideas that Republicans are wary of, he acknowledged he wouldn’t be able to win them over on some of those proposals.

“A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything,” he said. “This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests. That’s one of our strengths, too. Our founders distributed power between states and branches of government and expected us to argue -- just as they did -- over the size and shape of government.”