Although the country’s first president, George Washington, delivered his his State of the Union (SOTU) speeches in person, when Thomas Jefferson became the nation’s third president back at the beginning of the 19th century, he declined to deliver these speeches in person, preferring instead to send a formal printed report to Congress. This persisted until Woodrow Wilson became president in 1912. Since then, by and large, the personal appearance has been the norm. As presidents have gotten into television – and now into the Internet age – in a big way, the SOTU address has taken on even more public impact – even if a president’s proposals don’t always get much of an actual hearing by the Congress in terms of actual legislation, once that body settled down to its work.
Ronald Reagan created an entirely new wrinkle with the SOTU speech, strategically inviting special “ordinary” citizens as special guests, and then giving them a shout out in the speech itself to make a point about something. The first of these was Lenny Skutnik, an ordinary commuter who had leapt from his car and dived into the icy Potomac River to rescue terrified passengers, before any formal rescue teams had reached the scene of the crash, when a low-flying Air Florida jet struck a bridge in Washington in 1982 close to National Airport.
In Reagan’s plan, Skutnik’s genuine heroism was positioned to symbolise the power of private citizens who volunteer to do best what governments can only hope to achieve. Now every president salts the event with several special “everyman” guests. It has become an intricately planned exercise designed to punch up key speech points – as the television cameras pick out these heroes seated in the visitors’ gallery near the First Lady. A Washington guessing game is to predict who the incumbent president will pick – and which themes he will be giving the shout outs to in his speech with these made-for-television moments.
A year into his second presidential term, Obama’s approval ratings have reached a particularly low ebb. More urgently still, Obama’s party faces a tough midterm election battle to hold onto its control of the Senate. As a result, Barack Obama’s tasks this time are to demonstrate his continuing relevance to governance, as well as to sound the tocsin for issues that could rally people to his side one more time (and, that in turn, could help hold a handful of key Senate seats in November).
Obama administration officials and spin-doctors have been busy tamping down expectations for any calls for expansive new programs or grand initiatives. This comes from a realistic appraisal in the White House that the mood in Congress, with an election coming up (as well as the existing, unpleasant partisan divide), precludes virtually any hope for the passage of new programs – or big spending decisions beyond the recent agreement on the federal budget.
Instead, Congress seems likely to spin its wheels for the next ten months – with the possible exception of some movement on an immigration reform deal. As a result, smart money is betting that in his speech, Obama will focus strongly on ideas to address income inequality and improve an increasingly stalled mobility of American families to move up the income ladder. Instead of big bills to be proposed, there will be attention in this year’s speech on measures the president could legally put in place, without the need to obtain new congressional action and agreement.
A rough consensus of some close observers of the president’s choices and opportunities say there are some six key things to watch for on Tuesday night in Washington. Look to several of these to be shout out opportunities for those special citizen guests in the visitors’ gallery of the House of Representatives during Obama’s speech.
For the first of these, the president will hammer hard on some form of movement on income inequality. As NBC News’ Chuck Todd argues, “Economic fairness has always been a theme for the president, but it’s a defining one for Democrats now eyeing the midterm elections. And the party thinks it’s a winning issue: A new USA TODAY/Pew Research Center poll shows that majorities of both Republicans and Democrats believe income inequality has been growing over the past decade. The same survey showed overwhelming support for extending the stalled jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed and for raising the minimum wage. Republicans also have their eyes on those numbers, with high-profile and possible 2016 GOPers like Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Marco Rubio already pre-butting the president’s argument, arguing that the ‘War on Poverty’ has fundamentally failed.” Rubio has already made his first foray into this theme, right at the beginning of 2014, promising new Republican initiatives on poverty as what may be an opening gambit to position himself for the GOP’s presidential nomination for 2016.)
Second will be a real effort to contextualise historically and to advocate his use of his existing executive authority, coupled with the president’s “bully pulpit” to achieve policy goals. Look for a twin-edged effort in which the president will set out what he wants Congress to do, but to also enumerate what he will do in any case under current presidential executive authority – if Congress can’t – or won’t – act.
Third will be some strong language on the big question of immigration, what Obama has previously called his top domestic issue. This could be a fairly high stakes gamble for both parties, especially since it also offers up a potentially tough service for the Republicans to return to the president. In 2013, Obama had originally opened the door to accede to what Republican House Speaker John Boehner had termed a “step-by-step” approach to the problem – just as long as it conformed to the administration’s key requirements. Key Republicans have continued to say they remain open to a program that would grant legal status to most undocumented immigrants. However, the Obama administration and its congressional allies have been making it clear they want a “path to citizenship” included in such proposals as well. Nevertheless, congressional watchers say Obama doesn’t want his current language to sound too pushy, just as the Republicans are embarking on their effort in the House to pass some form of meaningful immigration legislation.
Fourth will be at least some effort by the president to speak to gun control reform. The president has continued to express his support for changes in gun control at the national level, most recently reminding the electorate, for example, “Gabby Giffords deserves a vote, the families of Newtown deserve a vote.” However, any new measures remain hopelessly stuck in Congress – and even lacks sufficient support in the Democratically controlled Senate at this point. Given a number of recent shooting incidents that have made national news, it would be virtually impossible for Obama not to point to the need for new legislation as well as to highlight the things his administration has already achieved without new legislation. But any real, sweeping federal laws are not about to be passed any time soon.
Fifth, watch for the full-on multimedia experience this time around as part of the SOTU speech. Even as the president speaks, there will be efforts to achieve the perfect “second screen experience”. The White House will generate an onslaught of multimedia materials, available in real time from the WhiteHouse.gov website, even as the president is speaking. This will include the kind of information that triggers people to repeat the material and link to the pages in their own emails, Facebook postings – and via their tweets. This effort will also include a Google+ Hangout. Taken together, this would seem to be speaking to an audience already fatally addicted to multitasking with one eye on the TV screen and one on their laptop, smartphone or tablet device.
And sixth, watch for a reiteration of some of the president’s previous taglines from 2013, such as, “We must do more to combat climate change;” “I realise that tax reform and entitlement reform will not be easy;” and “Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away.” This will serve to underscore the president’s promise and his problem. Much of what he has hoped to achieve has gone nowhere very fast, and so he will need to find a way to highlight the progress – where there is some – on the Affordable Care Act, now that people are finally signing up after the disaster of its initial rollout. On this point especially, watch for one of those shout-outs and a guest in the gallery who is representative of those people with pre-existing conditions who have finally been able to access health insurance.
As a result of these pressures on the president, the impending election and his relatively limited room for manoeuvre, look for Obama to try to use this SOTU as his best possible opportunity – early in this election year – to deliver a first punch in the battle for control of Congress. Most observers say the House of Representatives is almost certain to remain in the grasp of Republicans – including a noisy, obstreperous Tea Party-aligned faction – and the Democrats will have a tough battle to keep the Senate. This will especially be the case because of the thirty-six Senate seats up for grabs in 2014, a majority of those are held by Democrats.
The New York Times notes, “A review of competitive congressional contests suggests that, at the moment, Republicans will hold on to the House, though Democrats could defy midterm history and gain a few seats. Senate Democrats, at the same time, are defending unfavourable terrain and will almost certainly see their majority narrowed. They are at risk of losing it altogether, an outcome that would leave Capitol Hill entirely in Republican control for the conclusion of Mr. Obama’s presidency. ‘Democrats are going to lose seats, there is no question about that,’ said Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Hoping to offset losses and make it more difficult for Republicans to net the six seats that would hand them the majority, Senate Democrats are taking aim at Republican-held seats in Georgia, an open contest, and Kentucky, where they hope to defeat Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader and 30-year Senate veteran who has seen his popularity dip back home.”
In doing his part for the election, as well as pursuing an issue he has spoken to before, Obama will be trying especially hard to tap into that inequality theme. EJ Dionne Jr, in his most recent Washington Post column, put the Democrat’s hopeful position about as well as possible, noting, “For the first time since his early days in office, Obama has the philosophical winds at his back. He may be struggling with his approval ratings, but the matters the president hopes to move to the center of the national agenda — rising inequality and declining social mobility — are very much on the nation’s mind. The days leading up to Obama’s best chance to redirect the country’s conversation brought two important signals that the tectonic plates beneath our politics are shifting. One was a striking Pew Research Center poll showing that on issues related to economic and social justice, Democrats and independents are on the same page while Republicans find themselves isolated.”
There are risks for the president, even here. Yes, there is a chance he can strengthen support among nominal Democrats, he might also drive Republicans even further from any support for his administration that is the case already. The Pew survey notes a growing concern over inequality, saying, “There is broad public agreement that economic inequality has grown over the past decade. But as President Obama prepares for Tuesday’s State of the Union, where he is expected to unveil proposals for dealing with inequality and poverty, there are wide partisan differences over how much the government should – and can – do to address these issues. The new national survey by the Pew Research Center and USA Today, conducted Jan. 15-19 among 1,504 adults, finds that 65% believe the gap between the rich and everyone else has increased in the last 10 years. This view is shared by majorities across nearly all groups in the public, including 68% of Democrats and 61% of Republicans. Yet there is a sharp disagreement over whether this gap needs government attention. Among Democrats, 90% say the government should do ‘a lot’ or ‘some’ to reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else, including 62% who say it should do a lot. But only half as many Republicans (45%) think the government should do something about this gap, with just 23% saying it should do a lot. Instead, nearly half of Republicans say the government should do ‘not much’ (15%) or ‘nothing at all’ (33%) about the wealth divide.”
And Dionne argues, that “Although not explicitly political, the speech before millions will frame an economic argument that Democrats hope will resonate with voters in races across the country. ‘It will be interpreted as the Democratic agenda,’ said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. ‘He can frame up the 2014 choice.’ ” And Dionne argues further that while the president can try to bob and weave skilfully to reach for a victory or two, such as with immigration, the “larger task is the one Ronald Reagan always kept in mind: to encourage a shift in public opinion that is already moving toward his ideas. Obama will be judged, of course, by the state of the nation when he leaves office in January 2017. But his place in history will depend on what is happening in 2027 and beyond.”
However, Obama will have fewer and fewer opportunities to frame the arguments, let alone set the course, in the time ahead. And this year his message will have to contend with three different responses from Republicans, in addition to the usual tidal wave of pre-speech, during-speech and post-speech spin, analysis, and evaluation on dozens of different television and digital media platforms – besides print media the next morning and beyond.
As far as those GOP speeches go, the first will be the standard Republican Party one, this time from Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and delivered just after President Barack Obama finishes his speech. Second, however, Senator Mike Lee will give the Tea Party’s version of the way forward – and then Senator Rand Paul will give his own highly touted speech on Tuesday as well. Given this speech overload, Barack Obama is going to have to deliver a true rhetorical masterpiece, if his key themes are to dominate the news cycle for the rest of the week – and on into the future – rather than be buried in a blizzard of words and sound bites. This will be one tough play, especially as the clock starts to run down towards the next election. DM
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (C), flanked by Vice President Joe Biden (L) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 12, 2013. REUTERS/Charles Dharapak/Pool
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