President Obama will deliver his second-to-last State of the Union speech tonight, and expectations are extremely low: Without any elections left to campaign for—and facing a Congress controlled by the opposition party—what Obama says could be inconsequential.
Sure, he wants to tell you about his tax plan to fight inequality, but the sophisticates are wondering aloud why such ideas should even be in his speech, given their low likelihood of being enacted—though this standard never seems to apply to the Congressional proposals bound for Obama’s veto.
But there are good reasons to pay attention tonight, even if Obama is running out the clock.
Remember that veto pen? While Obama’s proposals are dead in the water for Congress when considered alone, it makes more sense to think of them as opening offers in a negotiation. Obama (and everyone else) knows Republicans are planning tax reform plans that will be focused on tax cuts for the wealthy. His proposal to use higher taxes on inheritance and capital gains, to lower the burden on middle- income Americans, sets up a counter-point that Republicans will have to move toward, unless they want to wait until 2017.
Anyone who was in a frenzy about Mitt Romney’s presidential trial balloon should be paying attention to what Obama says now, because the candidates from his own Democratic party will spend the next year alternatively running toward and away from him. Any Democratic candidate who can’t at least match Obama’s plans will be considered too centrist by the base of the party during the primary, but the eventual nominee may very well need some space to run away from Obama’s policies in the general election. Hillary Clinton will be taking notes.
Don’t forget that Obama, as president, still has a free hand in foreign policy, lame duck or no—consider the recent deal with China on carbon emissions, for example. And he’s still got quite a slate of challenges: The muddled response to the Islamic State and authoritarian governments in the Middle East, figuring out how to restrain Russia from further belligerence while keeping the European Union on his side, and maneuvering towards two sets of global trade deals that his party dislikes but he hopes to make his final accomplishment in office.
When Obama suddenly relaxed trade and travel restrictions with Cuba last month, few observers saw it coming. He might have a few more such pivots up his sleeve. Also worth looking for: The president’s unexpected endorsement of a Republican proposal as a sweetener for legislative compromise.
There’s still something to be said for seeing all the members of government in one room, glaring at each other like cats meeting in an alley. There will be guests, both heart-warming and crass, sitting with first lady Michelle Obama. Awkward handshakes! Power ties! Power broaches! This, truly, is the pageant of democracy.