On Tuesday night, President Barack Obama delivered his last State of the Union address. As he enters his eighth—and final—year in office, the novelty for most Americans of seeing Obama give a big speech with lots of media attention probably wore off several years ago. Yet, the pomp and circumstance surrounding this presidential address still commands intense media coverage and analysis. It is an annual opportunity for the president to “be presidential” on the national stage while highlighting policy initiatives to gain potential support from members of Congress and voters.
Traditionally, preparation for the speech includes competition within the administration among the numerous cabinets and agencies to see whose favored policy project will get a mention (usually a line or two) in the address. The speech also involves an extensive White House communications and media strategy, with the goal of maximizing the president’s exposure in news coverage to promote his policy agenda. This year, the White House also made a concerted effort to promote the speech via social media. While the speech itself is usually substantive, the surrounding hype before, during, and after is often political theater at its best.
The final State of the Union address for a two-term president, however, usually takes on a slightly different tone and purpose. The speech is more about constructing a post-presidential narrative about major policy accomplishments and political victories as any chance of new policy initiatives are almost nonexistent. This is an opportunity for the president to begin the public discussion of his legacy and share his vision about what has happened since he first took office and the direction he believes the country should go once he leaves.
With only twelve months left, and in the middle of a presidential election, the current White House occupant looks more like a star athlete in his final season engaging in a farewell tour (think Kobe Bryant’s recent—and last—appearance at the Boston Garden as part of the storied Lakers-Celtics rivalry) than a president with political capital seeking to implement a sweeping policy agenda. In keeping with the basketball theme (particularly given Obama’s love of the game), while Obama may want to run up the score before the final buzzer, there will be no easy layups or slam dunks as time runs out during the fourth quarter.
Nevertheless, Obama delivered a spirited and at times combative address Tuesday night, which included several off-the-cuff comments and jabs at Republicans, as he set the stage for his final months in office. He promised a shorter and different kind of State of the Union address, and on those promises he delivered. The goal of the speech was to shape his legacy by highlighting what he considers to be his “grand vision” for America in the coming years, stating, “I want to focus on our future,” and that the United States is in the middle of a period of “extraordinary change.”
According to numerous media reports in the days leading up to the State of the Union, Obama’s goal for this speech was to be both inspirational and aspirational. Not only did the speech not list specific policy initiatives to pursue during his waning months in office, neither did it give specifics about Obama’s biggest legislative accomplishments. Past victories, like passage of the Affordable Care Act, cutting the unemployment rate in half, or major steps toward energy independence, only received brief mentions. Instead, Obama discussed current issues important to him like education reform, affordable student loans, cancer research, climate change, and the continuing War on Terror, among others. Yet even in discussing those issues, he provided broad strokes as opposed to specific policy initiatives.
At the start, Obama listed four “big questions” that he wanted to address: 1) A fair shot at opportunity and security for all Americans in the new economy; 2) Making technology work for us and not against us, particularly with issues such as climate change; 3) Keeping the United States safe without taking on the role of global policeman; and 4) Politics should reflect what’s best, and not what’s worst, about the United States. Near the end, Obama, as previewed, also said he regretted his inability to fix what’s broken in Washington, that “rancor and suspicion” has gotten worse, not better, since he took office. In response, he urged changes to the political process (including campaign finance and gerrymandering) and the need for increased political participation.
The overriding theme of the evening was definitely national unity, though in the hyper-partisan environment of a presidential campaign, a lame duck president is unlikely to shift public opinion in a significant direction. More than likely, Obama’s message only resonated with those who have long supported him, with few converts by the end of the address. Critics suggested that this was a political speech aimed at helping Democrats in 2016, meant to appeal to the liberal base, and was, at times, disconnected from the issues most important to American citizens. Many Democrats thought Obama sounded strong, while many Republicans thought he sounded defensive.
Regardless of one’s view, for all the attention that comes with a State of the Union address, the memory of this one will fade quickly as the focus will return to the presidential campaign trail. And while this may be the start of the debate about Obama’s legacy, many other factors will shape the public’s view by next year when he leaves office, including his approval ratings, various international issues (particularly the status of ISIS and other issues within the Middle East), the still-recovering economy, and whether a Democrat or Republican wins the presidential race next year.
As if to highlight the fact the Americans are nearing the end of the Obama era, the Republican Party chose South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley to deliver the GOP response. Speculation has been swirling about raising Haley’s profile as a potential vice-presidential running mate. Not only did she provide an alternative narrative as to the state of the union (always expected in the opposing party’s response), but Haley—who is 43 years old, of Indian descent, and a popular two-term governor—also highlighted a forward-looking image for the GOP, often criticized for not being inclusive and diverse.
The bottom line for this year’s State of the Union address: The Obama presidency will soon be yesterday’s news as Washington begins to prepare itself for a new administration. Whether the new administration will continue Obama’s policies, or reverse and dismantle many of them, will be addressed in the coming months. Specific plans will likely be laid out when the new president addresses a joint session of Congress for the first time in early 2017.