President Obama will still have more than a year in office once he wraps up his final State of the Union speech on Tuesday night. But judging by the White House promotional pitch, it sounds like Americans will be hearing the beginnings of a farewell address when Obama steps up to the Capitol rostrum.
For one, the president is dispensing with the customary laundry list of proposals in favor of offering a more thematic “vision” for how far the country has come under his watch, and where he thinks it needs to go. There are two obvious reasons for Obama to go this route. Primarily, it’s a reflection that most of what he’d want to do stands little chance of passage by a Republican Congress in an election year. Might as well not waste everyone’s time.
Forgoing an itemized wish list is also an acknowledgement that the nation’s (or at least the media’s) attention is rapidly turning from the White House’s current occupant to the men and women jockeying to be the next one. Obama wants in on that conversation, and the State of the Union is one of his last, best opportunities to counter what Democrats call the “doom and gloom” narrative emanating from the Republican presidential primary. “We feel very optimistic about the future,” Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, said Sunday on Meet the Press. By contrast, he said Republicans were trying to “run down America.” “That's a big difference between us and what's going on in this public debate right now and that's what you'll hear about on Tuesday,” McDonough said.
To that end, expect Tuesday’s address to feature plenty of “reminders” from the president—reminders that despite concerns over lackluster wage growth, robust job growth has cut the unemployment rate in half over the last five years, reminders that despite complaints about premium increases and persistent Republican attempts at repeal, the Affordable Care Act has expanded health insurance to millions, reminders that despite the rise of ISIS and the ever-present threat of terrorism, the president has made diplomatic breakthroughs on climate change and with Cuba and Iran in the last year. The point of all this chest-thumping is not just to bump up Obama’s middling approval ratings; it’s to boost Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders who are running at least in part on Obama’s record.
State of the Union addresses always have two core audiences: the lawmakers sitting in front of the president and the millions of people watching at home. During the Obama years, there’s never been any confusion about which audience he considers more important. Since Republicans broke the Democratic majority in 2010, Obama’s relationship with Congress has resembled a particularly messy divorce.
Confrontations and the occasional court fight dominated the first few years, but in 2015 there was a bit of a thaw, as if the two sides just got tired of fighting all the time. Republicans and the White House struck significant—if not landmark—agreements on spending, education, trade, and infrastructure. The result is that the universe of policy issues on which bipartisan action is possible in 2016 is pretty small. Obama on Tuesday will make his ritual calls for Congress to act on guns, immigration, and the minimum wage, but he’s likely to devote more time to touting the changes he’s already made on his own.
Republicans aren’t expecting much, either. Paul Ryan (sans beard) will be sitting behind the president for the first time as House speaker, and when he was asked last week what he’d like to hear Obama say, he merely joked that he hoped the president would have a epiphany and renounce his entire political philosophy. “Based on what the White House has been saying in the media, it’s unlikely we’ll hear a unifying message for our country tomorrow,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Monday.
There remain two big areas where major bipartisan legislation is possible in 2016, although election-year politics could intrude on both. Obama is expected to implore lawmakers to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership that his administration finalized with a dozen Asian countries last year. But with many Democrats—including all three presidential contenders—outright opposed and many Republicans noncommittal, expect the applause for Obama’s plea to be lukewarm at best.
The more promising issue is criminal-justice reform, where a bipartisan consensus in favor of reducing the incarceration rate has led to movement in both the House and Senate. Holly Harris, the executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, said she’s been told that Obama will devote a “substantial part” of his speech to the issue. The president’s tone, however, will be important and could signal how optimistic the White House is about the chances for legislation to reach his desk. “I do hope that the president takes this opportunity to give credit across the aisle to Republicans who have been working on these issues for years,” Harris, a former GOP official in Kentucky, told me on Monday. “It’s the bipartisan nature of this movement that’s made it so successful.”
Obama surprised pundits by accomplishing more over the last 13 or 14 months than during his previous two years, combining an aggressive use of executive actions, diplomatic agreements, and some modest successes in Congress. He’s stumbled more on national security, drawing criticism and low approval ratings for his handling of the war against the Islamic State and his response to the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. But he’s certainly made good on his prediction that “interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter.” The last year of a presidency is legacy-burnishing time, and all indications are that there will be plenty of that.
Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, told reporters Monday that Obama would use his final State of the Union to “convey his optimism about the future of the country” and highlight “opportunities that are there for the taking.” The question is, will Obama spend more time talking about the year 2016 and what he wants to do before he leaves, or will he speak more about all that happened in the years before and all that could happen in the years after? If it’s the latter, the president’s last address to Congress could sound like the beginning of a long goodbye.
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