The State of the Union, Executive Power, and Cuba

Next week, President Barack Obama will deliver his fourth State of the Union Address before the U.S. Congress.

If this speech is anything like his address last year, he will talk for an hour and not mention Cuba once.

We will be listening for something else – how much the President pegs his program in 2014 on the exercise of his executive authority.  Without descending to an absurd level of tea leaf reading, meaningful hints that his administration will take a muscular approach to moving policy on either domestic or foreign affairs could bode well for action on Cuba.

First, some history: From the election of Thomas Jefferson to the retirement of William Howard Taft, presidents stopped climbing Capitol Hill to make a public address before the U.S. Congress, choosing to submit written statements instead.  President Woodrow Wilson broke the silence with a Congressional address urging passage of legislation to lower barriers to trade.

The larger significance of what Wilson did in 1913 is instructive as we wait for Obama to speak. Wilson’s speech, historians tell us, signaled an ending of absolute Congressional control over policy and the beginning of modern public rhetoric by Presidents to act, appeal to the public, and exert their dominance over the national agenda.

This theme was sounded in a speech about presidential power by then-Senator John F. Kennedy in 1960 as he started to campaign for the White House.  Although Kennedy, a biographer of the Senate’s most courageous figures, was a creature of Congress, he framed his run for the presidency as a response to Congressional inactivity and paralysis, brought on by six years of divided government.


The president, he argued, “must be prepared to exercise the fullest powers of his office – all that are specified and some that are not. He must master complex problems as well as receive one-page memorandums. He must originate action as well as study groups.”

We need, he said, “what the Constitution envisioned: a Chief Executive who is the vital center of action in our whole scheme of Government.”

That view of the presidency is what brought John Podesta, who served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, back into public service as an advisor to Barack Obama.  During the Clinton presidency, Podesta directed efforts that provided environmental protection for federal lands, declassified secret documents, and offered safeguards for medical privacy, during an era of searing partisan conflict and divided government, none of which required Congressional enactments.

In 2010, Podesta wrote a policy guide on executive authority that told readers “The U.S. Constitution and the laws of our nation grant the president significant authority to make and implement policy.”  He said, “President Obama’s ability to govern the country as chief executive presents an opportunity to demonstrate strength, resolve, and a capacity to get things done… Progress, not positioning, is what the public wants and deserves.”

Podesta can now evoke action from Obama as he seeks to secure a legacy for his presidency in this era of divided government.  So, we ask: Why not Cuba?

The preconditions for ending our Cold War policy approach to Cuba, and creating a new, normal relationship that reflects the conditions that prevail today could not be clearer.

  • To meet its own needs, Cuba has adopted sweeping reforms to update its economic model, giving opportunities to nearly a half-million Cubans to earn more money and exercise greater control over their own lives.  If anyone doubts these actions have implications for the island’s political system, read the reporting on what is happening in Holguín below.  These reforms also happen to be in alignment with historic goals of U.S. policy.
  • In the U.S., public support for ending the embargo is high, political assumptions about how candidates win presidential elections in Florida have been upended by President Obama’s last two campaigns, and many Cuban-Americans in Miami, exhausted by our nation’s economic crisis, and freely able to visit and support their families in Cuba, are preoccupied with improving their lives.  Even the staunchest hardliners in Congress have other problems on their minds.
  • Internationally, the European Union, Heads of State throughout Latin America, and the United Nations, have normalized relations with Cuba, confront the U.S. over our policy, or both.  We are out of step with the rest of the world.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas, the Brookings Institution, the Cuba Study Group, and other institutions have long advocated steps the president can take, without waiting for a divided Congress, to reform Cuba policy.  We just need a president to take them.

Hear, again, the words of John Kennedy:  “[T]he White House is not only the center of political leadership. It must be the center of moral leadership–a ‘bully pulpit,’ as Theodore Roosevelt described it.

“For only the President represents the national interest. And upon him alone converge all the needs and aspirations of all parts of the country, all departments of the Government, all nations of the world.”

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