Editor’s note: “The state of the union is good,” and the attitude of President Barack Obama in his annual speech to Congress was upbeat. Good economic news and no more election campaigns were the backdrop to the president’s “ambitious agenda” and “assertive” call to action. Here scholars from around the US give their reactions to the rhetoric, the theater and the longer term impact of this set piece in American politics.
SOTU has few traditions to break: it’s the content that counts
*J Michael Hogan, Pennsylvania State University *
Even before he spoke, the pundits accused Barack Obama of “killing” the State of the Union (SOTU) address by previewing its content in speeches, videos and social media. The SOTU is no longer the “big reveal,” they complained, which presumably diminished both its audience and the tradition itself.
Hogwash! Although rooted in the Constitution, the SOTU has never been that tradition-bound.
Delivered as a written report for much of our history, Wilson changed it into a major speech to Congress; Coolidge made it a radio address; Truman delivered it on TV; and LBJ moved it to prime time. And George W. Bush gets the credit (or blame) for first streaming it over the Internet.
Whatever the medium, the message is what matters. Scholars still point to Ronald Reagan’s 1982 SOTU as one that transformed the genre by invoking the personal stories of invited guests to illustrate his themes. They also still talk about SOTU addresses with big ideas, like the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
Let’s hope that the pundits will now provide at least some analysis of Obama’s ideas instead of obsessing over how the speech was delivered and its implications for the next presidential election.
Rallying the party with ‘middle class economics’
Tom Cronin, Colorado College
President Obama gave an optimistic talk about how America has recovered from the major recession and proposed a populist “Middle Class Economics” policy agenda that might help working and middle class America enjoy more of the fruits of this recovery.
Most Americans probably either didn’t listen to his talk or turned it off mid-way through. And research shows that few of these types of talks have more than a minor impact on public opinion or what Congress is inclined to do.
Still, it is an opportunity for any president to help shape the agenda. Americans expect presidents to celebrate the nation and talk proudly about recent accomplishments and possible future achievements. Obama,like most recent presidents, did this.
The president is a polished speaker and has a splendid ability to portray shared aspirations. What he was especially able to do in the talk, even if momentarily, was to make people forget that Democrats just suffered one of their worst elections defeats in generations.
Obama’s strongest sections were talking about the economy and what might be done to help community college students, low wage earners and helping on issues such as child care and paid sick leave. He cleverly, or perhaps deceptively, avoided talking about hiking capital gains taxes and similar revenue-generating policies needed to pay for these programs.
The President seemed to be claiming too much credit for the recovery and similarly conveyed more progress in Afghanistan and Iraq and in the war against terrorism than is justified.
Overall, however, he rallied his party, set out some worthy aspirations and established some progressive markers that will require members of Congress to at least consider and debate them.
He was using the bully pulpit as best he could, but no one expects major breakthroughs on most of his agenda, save perhaps on trade and cybersecurity issues.
Muted trumpet, quiet hands: a visual and aural analysis
Michael Cornfield, George Washington University
Television and video focus our attention on facial expressions. Since the contents and contexts of the SOTU have been heavily discussed (both before and after its delivery) by partisans, journalists and academics, I decided to write about what the faces said to us viewers during the speech and to listen carefully to the president’s tone of voice.
Obama began in a key of confidence and concluded in a pleading higher register that reminded me of James Stewart as Jefferson Smith in the early, relatively composed stage of his fictional filibuster in the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He did not soar, as he is famous for, but the uplift echoed those orations past.
Obama struck me as a valedictorian: proud of his GPA (two wins, no losses, as he reminded the Republicans), non-strategic in his agenda and outreach and wishful for the same “higher politics” he advocated eleven years ago in his “One America” speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, which he referenced.
The reactions of the assembled were in large part impassive and subdued. There were very few standing ovations and they were very brief in duration.
Speaker Boehner, visible throughout, mostly pursed his lips; oddly, I did not see Senate Majority Leader McConnell. The greatest show of emotion came from Alan Gross, the freed Cuban prisoner, who flashed his broken smile and mouthed thanks. House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan was glimpsed three times, wearing a grudging half-smile. Democratic stalwart Maxine Waters relished a swipe at the GOP’s focus on the Keystone pipeline.
The Republican majority, while stony, did not turn its back on the president in the manner of New York City police, not even when Obama defended the object of the officers’ scorn, Mayor de Blasio. The Democrats cheered, especially Elizabeth Warren, but not overly so.
Emotions, especially anger, can energize political participation. At the set piece theater that is the SOTU, we saw and heard very little emotion. Perhaps in the context of recent terrorism and the ultimatums that dominated the last Congress, that is a good thing.
Four reasons why this is Obama’s best SOTU ever
Matthew Hale, Seton Hall University
President Obama sounded, acted and seemed to really enjoy being a Democrat in his State of the Union Speech, no small feat for a president facing a hostile congress filled with Republican faces. This was, I think, his best State of the Union speech ever for four reasons.
First, the President took credit for his successes in the economy. He hasn’t had as much good economic news in past years but this year he did and he wasn’t afraid to talk about it.
Second, he wasn’t afraid to throw a punch. He took long overdue smacks at Vladimir Putin and one at snarky republicans laughing at the fact he has no more elections.
Third, he made promoting the middle class a cohesive theme and not just a checklist of programs.
Fourth and finally, the President didn’t forget that he has some serious rhetorical gifts. He referenced his 2004 Democratic convention speech and used its soaring optimism as a concluding theme to this one.
The President needed to show he was still important and still in the game. He more than accomplished those goals.
It’s all about 2016
John Geer, Vanderbilt University
The discussion about the 2016 presidential election is in full swing.
There are a lot of unknowns as we approach this contest. One thing we do know is that Barack Obama will not be on the ballot. He reminded us of that fact in his State of the Union speech.
Even so, he will play a critical role in the upcoming battle for the White House. The SOTU highlights the role he can and will play.
By touting the recent gains in the economy, he provides the Democrats the argument for retaining the White House: unemployment is falling, the deficit is shrinking and economic growth is robust.
At the same time, he is forcing the Republicans into an unappealing box.
They can no longer claim the economy is stagnant, as Mitt Romney did in 2012. Instead, Republicans must shift focus to income disparities; namely that the middle class has not been part of the economic recovery.
This is not an easy argument for the Republicans to make given their own history of tax policies that have favored the wealthiest Americans. Obama knows that and surely relished that aspect of the speech as he pushed the GOP into unfriendly territory.
If the economy continues to do well for the next 22 months, the Republican nominee will likely find the 2016 presidential election an uphill climb: Barack Obama will be a key reason for it.
A theater of whimsy
Daniel Franklin, Georgia State University
The State of the Union address has become part of the theater of American politics but does anyone watch?
Democrats pushed hard to increase their viewership in 2015 by urging supporters to watch the speech on their smart phones and tablets. Maybe the strategy worked. According to the latest count there were over two and a half million tweets related to the speech. Although, it should also be said that, according to Nielsen, television viewing of the SOTU was at an all time low of 38 million.
As to the speech itself, President Obama engaged in what best can be described as political whimsy as raising taxes on the rich and much of the rest of his program has as much chance of passing in the next Congress as a snowball’s chance in … oh well, you know. I presume that fans of term limits will be ecstatic about watching a lame duck president adopt a strategy of make a wish policy list.