Obama's State of the Union: A Canadian Primer

by Colin Robertson

This piece originally appeared in iPolitcs on Feb 12, 2013

What's a SOTU, you ask? Colin Robertson lays out what it is, h0w it happens, and what President Barack Obama's State of the Union address might mean for Canada.

What is the State of the Union (SOTU)?
He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient. Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution

With this constitutional requirement in mind, each president gives an ‘Annual Message’ to Congress. The practice is also followed by some states where the governor will give a ‘state of the state’ address.

George Washington and John Adams spoke to joint sessions of Congress but Thomas Jefferson made it a written report because he considered the speech too ‘monarchial’. In 1913, Woodrow Wilson restarted the practice. Since Franklin Roosevelt, the speech is given in late January or early February. The phrase ‘state of the union’ or SOTU in Beltway speak, is attributed to him. Roosevelt also began the practice of a night-time address in recognition that with the advent of radio, his audience was not just those in the chamber but the American public who listen and now watch. In 1997, Bill Clinton began the practice of live streaming the SOTU on the web. Last year’s State of the Union address reached 48 million people, according to Neilsen.


What happens?
There is a protocol to the SOTU beginning with the Speaker of the House formally inviting the President to address a joint session of Congress.

Tonight, members of the House will assemble in their chamber and at approximately 8:30 p.m. the deputy sergeant-at-arms announces the arrival of the vice-president and members of the Senate.

They are followed by the dean of the diplomatic corps, the chief justice and associate justices, the cabinet and the joint chiefs of staff all of whom seated nearest the rostrum.  

By tradition, one cabinet member is designated to stay in a secure location — the ‘survivor’ to ensure continuity and, since 9-11, this has also included a few members of Congress. Traditionally the members sit by party. This was obvious in the applause (or lack thereof), but after the Tucson shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords, there has been a mixing of members.

Just after 9PM the House Sergeant-at-Arms in stentorian voice will announce: “Mister Speaker, the President of the United States!” He makes his way slowly through the crowd and takes his place at the House Clerk’s desk and then hands copies of his speech to the Vice President and Speaker. They sit behind him in the Speaker’s desk. The Speaker then proclaims: “Members of Congress, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the President of the United States.”


The Speech
The President speaks to his agenda and the state of the union for about an hour. George Washington favoured brevity. His address was 10 to 15 minutes.

The address usually focuses on domestic policy — Lyndon Johnson declared a ‘war on poverty’ in 1964. There is often a strong foreign policy component. James Monroe declared the doctrine that bears his name in 1823. In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed the ‘Four Freedoms’. In 2002, George W. Bush described North Korea, Iran and Iraq as the ‘axis of evil.’

Since Ronald Reagan, with an eye for stagecraft, the speech will contain references to individuals, sitting close to the First Lady, like Larry Skutnik, the hero of the Air Florida flight that crashed into the Potomac in January, 1982.

Since Lyndon Johnson’s 1966 SOTU, the opposition party has followed the speech with a televised address of rebuttal. Senator Mario Rubio of Florida, featured on the cover of this week’s Time magazine as “the Republican Savior”, will give this year’s GOP response in both English and Spanish.


What are the Canadian interests?
Listen in particular for references to climate change and trade.

The president resurrected climate change as a priority in his Inaugural Address “knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But American cannot resist this transition. We must lead it…”

Legislative effort in his first term sputtered out in the Senate after the then Democrat-controlled House of Representatives had passed a bill (Waxman-Markey) that would have created a cap and trade system on green-house gas emissions with mandates for renewable energy generation, subsidies for wind, solar and other ‘green’ energy, as well as a renewable electricity standard (RES). From the Canadian perspective we want to ensure that our big hydro projects in British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec (and eventually Labrador) are included in the definition of RES.

Cap and trade would potentially raise the costs, in the short term, for American manufacturers there was suggestion that a levy would be assessed on goods from countries that did not have the same energy standards as the U.S. While aimed at China there was always the potential that Canada could get side-swiped because of the oli sands.
The president has set an “all of the above" approach to achieving U.S. energy independence. This includes the potential increase in supply of both offshore and inshore oil and especially natural gas through fracking — although this is still in its infancy. Environmentalists point to contamination of water and air.

Energy from Canada and Mexico play into the energy independence scenario.

Our immediate interest is the permit for the XL pipeline. This is the second application. The first application was denied in January, 2012 after Nebraska expressed concerns about its routing through the Ogallala Aquifer, that Governor Dave Heineman described as “the lifeblood of Nebraska’s agriculture industry”. The route was changed. After an extensive inquiry by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, Governor Heineman wrote (January 22) the President and Secretary Clinton saying that Nebraska now favours the pipeline.

The permit for the pipeline is granted through the State Department. Foreign Minister John Baird raised it Friday (February 8) when he met Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry was non-committal noting that the environmental assessment was currently underway but he “agreed to stay in touch on the Keystone pipeline.”

This coming Sunday, exhorts the Sierra Club website (and its ally, “thousands of activists will head to the White House and tell President Obama to shut down the climate-killing Keystone XL pipeline once and for all”. They promise it will be the “biggest climate demonstration yet” against “Big Oil.” Their goal is “to form a massive human pipeline through Washington and then transform it into a giant symbol of the renewable energy future we need and are ready to build, starting right away.”

The XL pipeline has become as a rallying point for environmentalists and other activists in the same fashion as was the debate over ‘clear-cutting’ in the Great Bear Forest and the seal hunt. But the strategic value of Canadian oil and gas is not lost on the Pentagon. As for the US environmentalist movement, Prime Minister Harper has tartly observed in the context of the Northern Gateway application that “just because certain people in the United States would like to see Canada be one giant national park for the northern half of North America, I don’t think that’s part of what our review process is all about.”

The oil sands and XL debate underlines why we have to get our oil and gas by pipeline, rail or truck to tidewater ports on the Pacific or Atlantic coasts if we are to diversify our markets and get a better price for our product.

Trade between Canada and the U.S. continues to be the biggest between any two nations.

Trade generates jobs and with the American public consistently putting the economy and jobs at the top of their priority list it will feature large in the SOTU. The President has promised to double American exports. Last year a study commissioned by the Canadian Embassy concluded eight million jobs in the US depend on trade with Canada and that for 35 American states Canada is their main export destination.

If the president talks about infrastructure then we can hope for an early permitting of the proposed new second crossing between Detroit and Windsor. This is our busiest commercial gateway and it has encountered many obstacles including a ballot initiative sponsored by the Ambassador Bridge owner that was defeated in November. As Ambassador Doer remarked at that time, the bridge will create 10,000 – 15,000 direct construction jobs in Michigan. Michigan’s share of the bridge cost, estimated to be $550 million, will be paid by the Government of Canada and recouped through bridge tolls. Any cost overruns or revenue shortfalls will be paid by Canada. The bridge will be built with U.S. and Canadian steel.

Departing Secretary of Transportation Ray Lahood talked positively of the project last week saying that “I think everything is possible in Michigan when it comes to transportation. I think of the leadership of the governor (Rick Snyder) with Canada on the bridge crossing; what that will mean in terms of jobs, what that will mean in terms of the kind of relationship we have with Canada in terms of exports and imports. They need to get this project under way, get it done, and continue this kind of continuity of leadership that exists.”

Access to the U.S. market is always a top Canadian priority.

A pair of initiatives launched by the president and Prime Minister Stephen Harper in February, 2011 put aside the false choice between security and trade recognizing that economic security is vital to North American competitiveness. The initiatives are aimed at improving border access and regulatory cooperation based on the principle of “cleared once, inspected twice”. Process can be a placebo for action,  but in this case process is progress because we need to see attitudinal change on the part of those who mind the border.

Colin Robertson,Vice President of the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute, is currently Senior Strategic Advisor for McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP.

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