In Obama's Final State of the Union, a Shift in Priorities

The address spent less time on defense and economy; more on global leadership and political reform.

Year after year, President Obama’s State of the Union addresses have offered certain consistencies: plenty of dad jokes, a declaration that “the state of the union is strong,” and a list of legislative proposals for the coming year—many of them involving defense and the economy.

Or at least such was the case until last night. In 2016, the state of the union was still “strong,” and the president still scored a handful of laughs. But Obama ditched his usual format of outlining specific measures that he hoped to see from Congress, and actions he planned to carry out himself, in favor of a broader and more-optimistic discussion of the nation’s role in the global landscape, and a call to reform the political system at home.

In Obama’s first seven* annual addresses, the economy was always a central talking point, sometimes accounting for as much as half of the speech. Defense and education typically followed, racking up six-to-eight minutes apiece. And then a handful of other subjects such as health, immigration, and infrastructure would clock in somewhere in the two- to four-minute range.

From time to time, Obama would address an issue that was outside the standard menu—for example, in 2013, the year after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, he dedicated five minutes to gun-law reform. In 2015, he spent more time than usual on civil-rights issues, including racial discrimination, the wage gap, and criminal-justice reform. But on the whole, his first seven speeches were cut from the same cloth.

This year broke that mold. Economy-related topics still claimed about 17 percent of speech time. But for the first State of the Union in Obama’s tenure, the economy was not the star subject of the evening. And at a record-low four minutes and twenty-five seconds, neither was defense. When it came to discussing global matters, this year’s address contained fewer war and terror updates, and more broad ideas on the ways America can collaborate and lead on the global stage, beyond using its military might.

Another topic Obama approached differently this year was Washington itself. Urging Congress to overcome partisan obstructionism has indeed been a mainstay of the president’s earlier addresses. But 2016 was the first year he also spoke directly to the American people, calling on all citizens to be more engaged in public life, and to exercise their right to vote for political leaders that represent their views.

In a similarly unprecedented move, Obama also lay a small piece of the blame for Washington’s gridlocked condition on himself. He lamented not being able to better bridge the partisan divide, saying “it’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”

*Obama’s 2009 address was not technically a State of the Union address, but it is included in this analysis.