Obama’s State of the Union speech – the preview

By J Brooks Spector 12 February 2013

The stage is set for the high drama that has become the US president’s State of the Union speech. Barack Obama will try to set a tone for the rest of the year and legislative session to come. He will also issue challenges. But most of all, writes J BROOKS SPECTOR, Obama will be hoping to inspire hope or excitement in the many millions watching and waiting for some stirring rhetoric.

Since George Washington’s time, the American president has annually provided a “State of the Union” (Sotu) message in accordance with Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution’s instruction that “He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient…” as part of a longer roster of duties that the president shall faithfully carry out. Actually, while the president now routinely stands telegenically in the well of the House of Representatives’ chamber of the Capitol Building and speaks to the joint houses of Congress, as well as to the nation and the world via television in his annual State of the Union speech, for much of the country’s history, the president simply filed a written document with a congressional clerk and let someone else read it. No ceremony, no pomp.

Now, of course, it is all high drama, high (or an occasional bit of low) politicking, and the full nine yards’ worth of presidential pomp. Assembled in the chamber with him will be virtually every representative and senator, the justices of the Supreme Court, scads of specially invited guests (it’s a hot ticket to be able to sit in the visitors’ gallery), hordes of journalists, high ranking military officers and all of the president’s cabinet – save one. That exception, as every viewer of The West Wing TV serial knows, is to keep a line of presidential succession in place – should an unimaginable event happen that simultaneously kills the president, vice president, Speaker of the House, President pro tempore of the Senate– and the rest of the cabinet.

And so, on Tuesday evening, 12 February, Barack Obama will be formally welcomed by the chief usher and introduced as a ceremonial guest to the Speaker of the House and then allowed to speak his mind and give wings to his hopes, fears and aspirations. Given its highly ceremonial – even stylised – nature, the Sotu is not usually the place for detailed legislative proposals or budget details. These come separately – first in the annual budget message and then via still more detailed budget proposals introduced for congressional consideration by members of the president’s party.

By contrast, a Sotu is where a president tries to set a tone for the rest of the year and legislative session to come as well as to issue some challenges as well. These are to the sometimes-unruly members of his own party to rally behind him over a series of legislative ideas, to his opponents to tell them to get ready to rumble, and always to the nation so that it understands that he understands the nature of his mandate to govern. Sometimes, too, a Sotu speech can be used to warn the country’s enemies of what is to come, and to bring the population along with him in a perilous journey. But most important of all, it is a night when a president can be assured many millions are watching and waiting for some stirring rhetoric that may just inspire hope or excitement.

Sometimes the president supplies his own excitement to the relatively routine process of delivering an important but often-formulaic speech (inaugural addresses seem to have more eternal rhetorical flourishes, it seems). Bill Clinton once famously extemporised for minutes on end when the teleprompter system into which his text had been loaded suddenly failed without warning. Clinton was always good for an off-the-cuff speech, but the amazing feat that time was that he essentially kept to the text he had intended to deliver so that when the teleprompter gizmos came back on line, he shifted right over to the words of the planned text.

Some years earlier, Ronald Reagan embedded a truly revolutionary item into the Sotu message – now-routine patriotic “shout-outs” to heroes seated in the visitors’ gallery. Most notably, perhaps, when he cited an ordinary citizen, Lenny Skutnik, who had impulsively abandoned his car while on the way home from work so he could jump into the frozen Potomac River as the first person to help rescue the dazed, stricken passengers of an airliner that had only moments before crashed into the icy river after it had clipped a bridge abutment after taking-off from nearby National Airport. Skutnik was in the gallery and got a hero’s accolades.

After that, presidents found this theatrical device perfect for highlighting a key theme in their speeches, these shout-outs to military men and women in times of war; good Samaritans when a president was trying to explain that a government works best when it gets out of the way of people; the physically challenged who achieve great feats so as to highlight the need for a new, special programme to support the afflicted; and just plain folks who do their humdrum but crucial jobs without complaint – whenever a president wants to emphasise the quasi-Roman virtues of noble citizenship. As a device, this is, of course, grand theatre because virtually no one watching really knows what’s coming next – or who will get the salute, until it happens.

In more recent years, too, although the Constitution is silent on the matter (especially since the framers of that document were not expecting the emergence of the modern political party system), the political party not holding the White House now gets to pick someone to deliver a kind of alternative Sotu speech – usually pre-recorded for broadcast on television, right after the president has finished his speech from the Capitol.

While this speech does not usually get quite the same attention as the president’s, the contemporary parties have often used this moment as an audition before a national audience of someone deemed likely to be a serious candidate for their party’s nomination for the presidency the next time around. It can launch a candidacy – or be the funeral of one if this rebuttal seems weak, ineffectual or wrong-footed in any of a thousand ways. This time around, the official Republican response will be delivered by Florida senator Marco Rubio in what many observers already say will be his first real national try-out, the first time playing for keeps in the centre court when there is no unanimously acclaimed party leader.

In the days leading up to the Sotu speech, think tankers always make their suggestions about what a president should say, while others in the commentariat try out their ideas of what belongs this time around. And, of course, the White House – usually through favoured reporters and pundits – lets slip an idea or two of what is actually coming up when the president stands before the country.

This time around, for example, one of Washington’s leading think tanks, the Brookings Institution, has emailed its entire database with the advice that “there’s no need to wait until tomorrow night to get started.” Brookings editors explain their “team has already weighed in on a variety of issues, and we’d love to have you join in.”

The Brookings message goes on, “Here’s some of what we’ve been writing in advance of tomorrow’s address: Bill Galston looks at the role of a president’s second inaugural compared to his first. In his view, President Obama should not focus on issues like immigration and gun control, and key in on the economy; Henry Aaron and Elisabeth Jacobs argue that there’s one thing President Obama needs to focus on: employment; Adele Morris wants a discussion of the one thing economists agree on: a carbon tax; [and] Kavita Patel thinks that, in the wake of Newtown and the gun control debate, a discussion of mental health is important.” Brookings’ scholars rather obviously want to write the speech themselves (and like many of the big wigs in Washington think tanks – in previous years some of them did have a hand in a Sotu or two.

Meanwhile, media reports have speculated the foreign affairs portion of the speech would feature a return by the Obama administration to a plan to renew efforts to achieve global cuts in nuclear weapons. That would be a return to the promise of the first year of his first term and the theme that led to Obama’s early receipt of that Nobel Peace Prize. The New York Times wrote on Monday that “President Obama will use his State of the Union speech on Tuesday to reinvigorate one of his signature national security objectives drastically reducing nuclear arsenals around the world after securing agreement in recent months with the United States military that the American nuclear force can be cut in size by roughly a third.”

While Obama is unlikely to peg any specific numbers for cuts in the Sotu speech, the paper went on to explain, “White House officials are looking at a cut that would take the arsenal of deployed weapons to just above 1,000. Currently there are about 1,700, and the new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia that passed the Senate at the end of 2009 calls for a limit of roughly 1,550 by 2018. But Mr Obama, according to an official who was involved in the deliberations, ‘believes that we can make pretty radical reductions — and save a lot of money — without compromising American security in the second term. And the Joint Chiefs have signed off on that concept.’” Although when such cuts come before Congress – and they would have to – it is unlikely the Republican-led House of Representatives will automatically sign off on such a dramatic change in the country’s defence posture.

Still other commentators point to the president’s often-cited pivot to the East to point to the fact tensions between the regional and major powers there are increasing at a fairly alarming pace. Writing in the Washington Post, Fred Hiatt argued that “Since he entered the White House, Obama has wanted to shift attention and resources to the Pacific. The biggest opportunities are there: economic growth, innovation, potential for cross-border investment and trade. That the 21st century will be a Pacific century has become a cliché.”

The cliché may still prove out,” Hiatt went on. “But rather suddenly, the region of economic miracles has become a zone of frightening confrontation. The North Koreans are turning out videos depicting New York in flames. Chinese warships have fixed their weapon-targeting radar on a Japanese ship and helicopter. Quarrels have intensified between South Korea and Japan, North Korea and South Korea, China and the Philippines, India and China. Taiwan is always a possible flashpoint. Any one of these could drag the United States in.” Given this set of interlocking developments, Obama would be well advised to focus on this region and explain the nature of the problems for the US, and, in broad strokes, explain what his administration hopes to achieve going forward, Hiatt advised.

On the domestic front, leaks are flowing from the White House that, as the Baltimore Sun reported, “President Obama will talk about gun violence, immigration and climate change in his State of the Union address, but the overarching focus will be on American jobs. Echoing the mantra of 2012 presidential campaign, Obama aides say that pocketbook issues are the most important things on the president’s agenda in the coming months. As he speaks before Congress on Tuesday, and then travels around the country after the speech, top on his to-do list will be economic expansion for the middle class and those who aspire to it.”

The Sun added “Administration officials compare the inaugural address to the first act of a two-act play, saying the president will also talk about the themes he raised in the January [inaugural] address during the February one.”

Building on the Sun’s points, Chris Cillizza, in the Washington Post, urged Obama to focus like that proverbial laser beam on the deficit. In Cillizza’s opinion, Obama should “spend the bulk of his time talking about the deficit. Here’s why: In January 2009 polling by Pew Research Center, 53% of respondents said reducing the deficit was a “top priority.” In January 2013, that number soared to 72%, by far the biggest increase of any issue over that time. (By contrast, 85% said strengthening the economy was a top priority in 2009, while 86% said so at the start of this year.) The debt is the issue of the day, and one that, if Obama is beginning to eye his legacy as president, could go a long way toward shaping how history remembers him. Make this speech a deficit speech.” 

That, of course, would allow him to press the Republicans, especially now that they are at sixes and sevens over what their own priorities should be in this Congress. This is important because Obama’s job approval polling data is pegging at a 55% positive, while congressional Republicans are only getting a 24% thumbs-up and two-thirds of the sample said that party is doing too little to compromise with the president on the country’s major issues. In short, the advice to Obama from this quarter is for him to strike now, while the polls are going his way.

And, according to the inside baseball political trends website,, “President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech will be less a presidential olive branch than a congressional cattle prod. Emboldened by electoral victory and convinced the GOP is unwilling to cut deals, Obama plans to use his big prime-time address Tuesday night to issue another broad challenge at a Republican Party he regards as vulnerable and divided, Democrats close to Obama say. He’ll pay lip service to bipartisanship, but don’t expect anything like the call for peaceful collaboration that defined his first address to a joint session of Congress in 2009, they say.”

Politico acknowledges that there are dangers in such a pro-active, aggressive strategy. “If Americans perceive Obama as too partisan, he’ll lose a serious share of his personal popularity. Yet he needs to burn political capital and keep the GOP on the defensive to force the opposition into accepting more taxes and fewer budget cuts as part of a deal to avert the $1.2 trillion-dollar sequester cuts looming on March 1.”

Politico writers have also tried to do the impossible, at least until Tuesday night, that is, in trying to guess what unexpected initiatives Obama will offer during his Sotu message. Late last week, White House officials were dropping hints that there might be some gutsy new (and expensive) proposals on infrastructure improvement, while environmental activists have been hinting at their renewed hopes Obama would use his post-election popularity surge to take “broader executive action on climate change after facing severe blowback following the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempts to curb emissions through departmental fiat.” And, then there is the possibility he would outline – at least in broad strokes – a new Middle East initiative in tandem with his now-announced visit to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. 

But regardless of any buzz from the president’s own speech, everyone will also be looking at this year’s Republican response, delivered in the person of Florida senator Marco Rubio. The next presidential election, after all, is less than four years away and if Rubio intends to seek his party’s nomination, he’ll almost certainly have to announce his intentions within the next two years. Tuesday night will be a great opportunity for him to do one heck of a practice run – or to crash and burn. DM

Read more:

  • Obama to Renew Drive for Cuts in Nuclear Arms in the New York Times
  • Obama’s State of the Union: Aggressive at Politico
  • Obama should focus on deficit in State of the Union at the Washington Post
  • Asian tensions add urgency to Obama’s ‘pivot’ at the Washington Post
  • Obama to focus on pocketbook issues in coming address at the Baltimore Sun
  • Liberal in domestic issues, Obama a hawk on war at the AP 
  • Obama set to lay out economic growth plan at New Zealand’s Business News (a Reuters story)
  • Marco Rubio emerges as GOP’s star. But is he the answer for Republicans? At the Washington Post

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama arrives at Meza gateway Airport in Phoenix, Arizona, January 25, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed


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