State of the Union: looking far beyond 2016, Obama claims post-presidency bully pulpit

Barack Obama has delivered his final State of the Union address. Reuters/Carlos Barria

On Tuesday night (Washington time), US President Barack Obama delivered his last State of the Union address, and his first post-presidency speech. Obama said early on:

For my final address to this chamber, I don’t want to talk just about the next year. I want to focus on the next five years, ten years, and beyond.

Dead-ends and disappointments

It’s not surprising that Obama wants to move beyond the next year. His seven years in office have been marked by dead-ends and disappointments. Stymied by an intransigent Congress since 2011, he has failed to enact much of his legislative agenda.

In 2014, Obama made a carrot-and-stick offer to Republicans: “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone”, referring to his willingness to sign executive orders if his efforts to reach out to Congress failed.

This State of the Union, though, made clear that as he turns his attention to his post-presidency, Obama will wield two more powerful tools: a pulpit and a chair.

Since the start of the 20th century, presidents have used the power of oratory and symbolism to sway public opinion. Teddy Roosevelt called the White House “the bully pulpit”, noting how presidents could leverage the stature of their office to sway public opinion.

Obama’s attempts to use the bully pulpit have often come up short, as opponents gave him little ground to act on public opinion. But as he escapes the polarised prison of national politics, Obama will likely be able to make himself heard in ways he hasn’t been as president.

Then there’s the matter of the chair. The president’s State of the Union guest list has long been a highly symbolic one, underscoring the main points of the speech. This year, First Lady Michelle Obama’s box included a Syrian refugee, a community college student, small-business owners, veterans and activists. It also featured an empty chair, a moving tribute to the victims of gun violence.

Such potent symbolism will no doubt figure heavily in Obama’s efforts out of office.

Obama’s new agenda

Obama did more than unveil the tools of his post-presidency. He also laid out a sweeping agenda, one fitting for a president at the start of his years in office rather than at the end. Instead of outlining goals for the remainder of his time in office, he laid out a broad vision for both the Democratic Party and himself: to build a fair economy, cure cancer, pursue peace through restraint and fix America’s broken political system.

This new Obama agenda contains the president’s trademark blend of optimism and pragmatism, a technocrat’s dream of a more perfect world, built bit by bit. That blend has long been the key to his appeal: big dreams backed by detailed plans.

The optimist has survived the presidency more or less intact. Obama, the candidate who once dreamed of an end to polarisation, the president who sought to heal racial divisions, is now the friend who – in the wake of the cancer diagnosis and death of Beau Biden, son of Vice President Joe Biden – has pledged to cure the disease.

The pragmatist has had a tougher time. It’s one thing to draw up a detailed plan. It’s another to move the levers to make that plan work, especially when so much of what the president wanted ran through Congress. Ironically, ascending to the world’s most powerful political office may well have worked to limit what Obama could accomplish. His frustration has grown increasingly visible in his second term: so much left undone, so much still to do.

Fortunately, Obama has some models for how to achieve the lofty goals he laid out in the speech. Both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have modelled active post-White House careers. Carter left office in 1981. A year later he established the Carter Center; for his humanitarian efforts, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

Clinton followed in Carter’s footsteps with the establishment of the Clinton Foundation, a humanitarian organisation that marked a significant shift from past post-presidential efforts.

That is the key to understanding the 2016 State of the Union. As Obama said:

A year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I’ll be right there with you as a citizen.

It was a speech not from President Obama but from Citizen Obama, laying out a vision not for the office he occupies now but for the role he is about to take on.