State of the Union: Obama’s tone was one of working together

The speech generated a less partisan reaction than some prior State of the Unions where sometimes only the party of the president would applaud.

Questions:

What do think about the speech, at whom it was aimed ? Was it successful in your opinion?

Answers:

Eric Ostermeier, Research Associate, Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, University of Minnesota

The substance of Barack Obama’s Address to the Nation was similar in many respects to his Address in 2010. Overall, 66 percent of his speech focused on domestic policy, compared to 65 percent in 2010. Only 16 percent focused on foreign policy, compared to 14 percent in 2010. By contrast, 57 percent of George W. Bush’s last Address to the Nation in 2008 focused on foreign policy matters.

Therefore, with partisanship in American peaking and trust in the federal government falling to an all-time low, perhaps the most notable aspect of his speech was not the policies discussed, but Obama’s tone. By spending the first few minutes of his speech on the importance of bi-partisanship and working together the President tried to make amends with independents who voted overwhelmingly for Republicans in 2010.

Obama spent only half as much time in this year’s Address focusing on the divisive issue of health care as he did in his 2010 Address. Instead, Obama focused his speech on policy issues that were less controversial such as education (13 percent of his speech) and cutting government spending and national deficit and debt (12 percent) and general, non-policy statements on the “American dream” (12 percent).

Overall, the President’s tone was one of healing and working together, which may influence in a positive direction his short-term favorability rating with the American public.

However, one speech will not impact the real political differences – and the harsh, partisan rhetoric – that will return Washington, D.C. as policy debates continue in the 112th Congress.

Josh Clinton, Professor of Political Science, Co-Director for the Center of the Study of Democratic Institutions, Vanderbilt University

President Obama’s State of the Union tried to focus the attention of the country on the largest common problems facing the United States.  The speech generated a less partisan reaction than some prior State of the Unions where sometimes only the party of the president would applaud, but it is unclear whether this is because many agreed with President Obama’s priorities or because Congress tried to minimize displays of partisanship following the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

In his speech, President Obama focused on his goals for the next two years rather than the discussing the disagreements of the last two years. The President emphasized his desire to increase investments in technology, education and infrastructure to try to improve the economy and better position the United States for future economic growth and global leadership.  Like many State of the Union addresses, President Obama did not specify how these goals might be accomplished.  He instead tried to define a set of priorities for the next two years that would appeal to most citizens of the United States.

Now, the critical question is whether the President and the Republican controlled House can agree on what to do and how to do it in a time of record fiscal deficits.  Agreeing to reduce government spending while also improving the educational system and infrastructure is easy.  The hard part is agreeing on how to achieve these goals.  Now that the speeches are over, the President and the Congress have to begin working on the hard part and time will tell how successful they are at realizing the priorities President Obama discussed.

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

I think that this was a solid speech that revolved around the economy…as expected.  It was a very pro-business speech, which to some may be a surprise.  I think that the measure of its success is how the speech is received by the business community and that remains to be seen.  Nevertheless, there is plenty in the speech for Democrats and Republicans to like.  The far left won’t, and neither will the far right.  But the president has positioned himself for the 2012 election by appealing to moderate Americans and Independents, he has offered a general blueprint for future economic growth, innovation, and prosperity, one that few Americans are unlikely to disagree with.

I think you also see a glimpse of how the Administration intends to push back on Republican opposition to health care reform: talk about those provisions that people like (pre-existing conditions, etc.) and forcing Republicans to come up with better ideas.  Still, the president offered a number of Republican ideas on health care (and on other issues) that he would be willing to accept.

The big surprise from a proposal standpoint is the idea to reorganize the government.  I’m excited to see specifics on that one, and curious about how that debate will play out!  I was also modestly surprised that foreign policy was not as large a component of the speech.  But I think this is consistent with the general tenor of the speech and the expectations of the American people, that the president focus on the economy, primarily.

In short, the president advocated a broad vision for economic growth.  He attempted to reach across the aisle on a number of issues but also made clear his differences with the Republican Party.  It may be a delicate balancing act, but at least symbolically, I think the speech will ring true for a large percentage of those who watched the address.  Whether the parties can work together to find common ground and act on common sense policies…that’s a open question.

Steven Greene, Associate Professor of Political Science, North Carolina State University

On the whole, I think this was a very good and effective speech from the President.  He presented an optimistic vision of America’s future in which an active, but leaner, government must play an important role through investments in infrastructure, research, and education.  This presents a fairly stark contrast to the Republican position of “dramatic cuts now!”

I think it was very much aimed at Independent voters and I think it probably resonated quite well with them.  Perhaps most importantly, I think it was aimed at media elites who help shape the political discussion.  He wanted to present a clear contrast with Republicans and help frame the issues going forward in a way that is more conducive to his policy goals.  The truth is, it will be very difficult to have meaningful legislative accomplishments with the Republicans controlling the House of Representatives, but insofar as compromises will be made, it is important for the debate to happen on Obama’s terms, rather than Republican terms.  I think he helped to make that happen tonight.  That said, as fine an orator as Obama is, it is ultimately just a single speech.  I think he accomplished about as much as he can hope to out of it, but the real tests are going to be the coming weeks and months as we see just how much he is able to accomplish with the new Republican-controlled congress.

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