Barack Obama has now given five State of the Union addresses (four officially), and if you watch them all in order you can witness the subtle development in his approach to the speech—one that also mirrors the development of his presidency, and his exercise of power. Obviously, every State of the Union address is a laundry list of the president's wishes, most of which will never come to pass. (Especially when the other party controls the House.) However, it's worth noting not just what Obama has asked for in his five speeches, but how he asked for them. And after a marathon viewing, you can start to tell how the Barack Obama of 2013 has subtly shifted from the 2009 leader who politely hoped his ideas would pass, to a president simply telling Congress what he wants them to do.
The president's first two speeches—before a joint session of Congress shortly after taking office in 2009 and for his first official State of the Union in 2010—were something like carbon copies of each other. Since they were delivered in the heart of the financial crises they naturally focused on economic issues, giving foreign policy a glance along the way. They started, like Tuesday night's speech, with jobs, which morphed into an attack on Wall Street and big banks, unlike this year. He pushed his economic recovery plan, praised his vice-president ("Nobody messes with Joe") and said the word "challenges" a lot. He had not yet begun to talk seriously about immigration reform, pollution, or college costs, or even the deficit, though all were mentioned in passing.
In his very first address, he also broke out a favorite trick—mentioning American citizens by name and using their personal stories as examples. The single mom who went back to school so she could change careers may not even directly relate to a specific policy proposal, but it's how Obama chooses to make his emotional pleas for his agenda. Unfortunately, the stories don't always end with a bill to pass—a grim reminder after Tuesday night's uplifting moment on gun violence. Both speeches ended with a variation on the phrase, "We don't quit." Inspirational, but hard to put on a to-do list.
The centerpiece of both speeches was Obama's health-care plan, first pitching the idea in 2009, then making his final push for the Affordable Care Act just before it was passed in early 2010. The timing of both speeches made it difficult for him to get into specifics—the first because he didn't know what they would be, and in the second, because they were already debated to death. That bill eventually did become the linchpin of his whole first term, but as a history of its passage, Obama's State of the Unions offered little guidance on how it came to be or what it was designed to do.
When the president did make specific policy suggestions, he fell into the trap, offering something that would be nearly impossible to deliver. In 2010, he floated the idea of a complete freeze on discretionary government spending for the next three years. The problem was that he asked for that freeze to start in the following year's budget (not the one they were working on at the time); essentially ceding the point that no one currently in the Congress could support it. The next year—with the freeze still not implemented—he asked for a five-year stoppage. It was a bold idea, but one he had to know would eventually become a broken promise.
Along those same lines, his 2010 speech talked a lot about the problem of money and politics—that was the year he criticized the Supreme Court's Citizen's United decision—but was unable to hammer home a definite solution.
In 2011, with health care and the midterms behind him, Obama first began his shift away from Big Ideas to specific plans. Abandoning "jobs" for "innovation" as his top economic goal, he brought up more concrete projects like high-speed rail, high-speed wireless, securing nuclear materials, and fixing bizarre regulations. (His "smoked salmon" joke became a classic of the genre.) Instead of talking about corporate accountability and bringing back overseas jobs, he talked about fixing the tax code, blocking lobbyist, and vetoing earmarks. None of those things came to pass, but it became clear that approach was changing. Small and simple, beats ambitious and difficult—because small and simple can actually be done.
The 2012 State of the Union was a campaign speech, that seemed to focus more on defending the previous three years, rather than dreaming of the next one. It had some specific plans, but was still shift back to bigger concepts. The difference was the 2012 concept were about the role of government, the place the United States should hold in the world, and rancor in Congress. That was the debate he expected to win in November.
It was a nearly explicit acknowledgment that no grand changes were going to shake up the government in an election year, but on a few specific proposals, he finally stopped asking and started telling. "No side issues. No drama. Pass the payroll tax cut without delay." His language toward the lawmakers in front of him became more direct ("Pass legislation that makes the penalties for fraud count.") and also more agressive—some would say combative. ("Most Americans would call that common sense.") The speech was filled with talk of bipartisanship, but even that was presented as a challenge rather than a request.
Tuesday night's speech completed that move by offering some very specific policy proposals, and backing them with a direct call to make something happen. Instead of phrases like "I propose" there was a lot more "I will" and "we should"—between proposals and beyond applause, he kept offering some iteration of "we can get this done." More than once he "urged" Congress to take a very specific role, telling them not just to "fix immigration," but "send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill." He's talked more than ever about the executive actions he will take, the money he will spend, and how much things cost.
At several points during Tuesday's speech, Obama even started dropping numbers and terms that presidents generally avoid in wide-sweeping policy speeches. Backing up his argument with words like "save $3,000 a year by refinancing" and "Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy," was an almost Clinton-esque move, borrowing from the former President's "Secretary of Explaining Things" approach to win over voters. Few politicians other than Bill Clinton can ever make that work, of course, but it's a sign of the growing confidence of a President emboldened by re-election and more sure than ever that the public—and the facts—are always on his side.
The ending of Obama's latest speech—the "deserves a vote" section—was not only the most powerful moment, but a nice encapsulation of his new direct approach. It still began with the usual emotional pleas, using victims of gun violence (with some of them sitting in the gallery) to call for new regulations. But Obama went further than ever, creating an overt rallying cry that was also a direct challenge for Congressional action. He's not asking them for help anymore. They better do it or else. This State of the Union was the most confident and forceful of President Obama's five major speeches in the chamber, but it was also the natural progression of a leader who is no longer learning the ropes, and is ready to assert his power.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.