State of the Union: What was it all about?

It is an election year and these addresses make for good television, but they seldom change the political landscape.

Questions:

1. Was the address influenced by the fact that this year is an election year? Was it apparent from it?

 2. What was the main message of the speech and maybe how did it differ from previous Obama’s SOTUs?

Answers:

Allan Louden, Professor of Communication, Wake Forest University

1. Of course, all Presidential speeches are political. Compared to many State of the Union Speeches by presidents seeking re-election – typically a list of accomplishments wrapped in rhetorical flourish – Obama’s speech was “less” political and more in the tradition of customary SOTU speeches – an extended list of policies the President asks the Congress to enact.

And yet the speech was fully political, with loud echoes of his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote, the speech that launch Obama’s national profile, “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.”

2. The speech scored in comparison to Obama first two SOTU addresses; challenged congress via gridlock, for their politically myopic entrenchment, for this “dereliction of duty”, encased in a message of our troops sacrifice. He enacted a bi-partisan appeal with an eloquence that has largely eluded him the last two years. The appearance of reasoned evenhandedness, often co-opting republican turf, becomes “invisibly” political.

John Pitney, Professor of American Politics, Claremont McKenna College

This speech was more about staying the course than changing the course.

The president gave a classic Democratic State of the Union address, calling for vigorous government action in a variety of areas. But he also made some rhetorical concessions to Republicans. Directly borrowing a phrase from his 2008 opponent, John McCain, he called for an “all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy.”

The upcoming election was a backdrop. He didn’t mention any of the Republican candidates by name. But when he said that everyone making a million dollars a year could pay at least 30 percent in taxes, everyone thought of Mitt Romney and his 15 percent.

Presidents seldom dwell on painful policy specifics, and President Obama is no exception. He said: “I’m prepared to make more reforms that rein in the long term costs of Medicare and Medicaid, and strengthen Social Security, so long as those programs remain a guarantee of security for seniors.” But what cuts would he make? On that point, he was silent.

These addresses make for good television, but they seldom change the political landscape. The president gave a good speech, but his reelection prospects hinge on the performance of the economy.

Philip Davies, Professor, The Eccles Centre for American Studies, The British Library

The SoU was certainly a statement aimed at this year’s election campaign. To some extent the Republicans have established the ground on which the Democrats can attack them. Gingrich’s remarkable reemergence notwithstanding, it is based on an attack against the rich, who are normally seen as Republican stalwarts, leaving Obama the opportunity to gently join in a debate that is currently damaging only to the Republican party.

It is very difficult to run a strong campaign on the basis that ‘things would have been worse if it wasn’t for my policies’ – but that is just about what Obama is stuck with, and he got those points in… saved the auto industry; stimulus didn’t do as much as hoped, but created 3m jobs … and so on, but of course unemployment remains high, growth remains low, and the electorate doesn’t want to think ‘it would have been worse’, but rather wants (perhaps rather impatiently) there to be a quicker solution.

It seems to me that the unusual outbreak of ‘class war’ within the Republican Party gave the President the opportunity to make his points in an atmosphere where they might get a better hearing. After all, if more than one of the Republican hopefuls claims to be outraged by low levels of tax on the rich, how can the Obama/Democrat/Warren Buffett criticisms along the same lines be considered overly radical? And if the Republican leadership in ths House considers Obama to be a ‘class warrior’, what does that say about the Republican leadership’s considered opinion on Gingrich when the latter is singing from a similar hymn sheet.

The Obama speech was carefully crafted. Tax questions were presented as common sense, not attacks, gains made (including the death of Osama) were steadily listed. Concerns for the future if the Democrats were not the administration were attached to place names and people in key swing states that Obama needs to win in November.

As ever he sounded quite scholarly and in control of his materials, and as ever his agenda was policy (though not health policy, not controversy), but this time definitely for an election audience and, while he still has a very long and hard fight, the divisions evident between leading Republicans had given him an unexpectedly good opportunity to make his points.

Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of North Texas

1. Yes…sort of. The president always engages in a permanent campaign for public support. This may mean support for public policy, at times, but also reelection, at least in the president’s first term. Therefore, any presidential speech, whether in an election year or not, is driven by this pursuit of public support.

Because we want to look at this through the prism of an election year, we can infer that we heard some likely and important elements of his campaign (or issues that he could raise in the campaign), including significant credit claiming for the end of the war in Iraq, successes against al Qaeda, and in Afghanistan. (This was brief, to be sure.)

Still, it was NOT a campaign or political speech. Those will come later, of course. But the president was true to the essence of the SUA, and that is to portray a strong America, to speak in broad visionary terms, while advocating specific policy proposals. This was a presidential address, no question about it. Indeed, if I had no idea that it was a presidential election year, this address would not have cued me that it was.

2. The economy was the message: a strong economy for the future of America, one that is grounded in fairness for broad growth and prosperity. Note that Obama used a good chunk of the speech to remind the American people of the economic mess that he inherited, not that he created. And he was able to highlight some key (however slight) improvements in the economy that are necessary for his reelection bid.

In short, the message was similar to past SUA’s, but the essence of it was different because the president used the SUA to underscore what he hopes will be the agenda for the 2012 presidential election campaign.



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