SOTU: Call to action?

Read few comments. President Barack Obama State of the Union Address here.

Nicholas Easton, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Administration, Columbus State University

If I were to sum up the president’s speech tonight in a single word I would have to say “bold”. In the two months since the president’s party lost seats in both houses of Congress the president seems to have found his footing, seeming almost free of the burden of campaigning either for himself or for his party. With this newfound energy and confidence Obama took tonight’s speech as an opportunity to make the case for a very progressive Democratic agenda even in the face of Republican control of both houses of Congress.

On the domestic front the president pushed ahead harder than he ever has in the past for tax policies that could only be called redistributive. He asked for government support for childcare, restated his recent new initiative for free community college for all Americans and asked for increased taxes on the very rich to support tax cuts for the middle class. This is an agenda sure to be met with strong opposition from the Republicans but Obama surely knows that he has shrewdly put the opposition party in the position where they are forced to defend the very rich at a time when more and more Americans are very aware of the growing prosperity that may have left them behind. Many observers today both before and after the speech suggested that Obama might really be casting the script not only for the next two years of his presidency but for the 2016 election campaign.

In foreign affairs Obama addressed a wide range of issues. Quite naturally, he began with the issue of terrorism defending both his record and his approach as smarter and more nuanced, incorporating both military strength and skillful negotiation. Importantly, he asked Congress for explicit support for a resolution authorizing continued action against ISIL. This, if passed, not only puts the president on stronger constitutional grounds but also sends a strong message to both our allies and our enemies of a united American front against terrorism.

In Eastern Europe he made a strong argument that our policies of punishing Russia for its aggression against Ukraine through economic isolation had already borne fruit and proven that it was not only the right strategy in that case but another example of how we might bring American might to bear on important issues in ways other than military. He used his new initiative of opening relations with Cuba, even invoking the name of Pope Francis, to suggest that we must depart from some of the old policies of the Cold War era.

He strongly suggested that our initiatives in negotiating with Iran were already achieving results and must not be derailed by threatened new sanctions as suggested by many Republicans in Congress.

The president also invoked appeals to bipartisanship on a few issues where he might be able to achieve some measure of cooperation including new initiatives to deal with issues like disease and cyber threats.

He closed with a strong and heartfelt appeal on issues of American values such as opposition to torture and a renewed commitment to try and close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. He noted that over recent years we had finally begun to show progress in reducing our crime rate while simultaneously reducing our prison population.

Though there will clearly be strong rebuttal and a push back from Republican leaders, the president appears this evening to have seized the initiative and for the time being to have set an agenda that Republicans will have to respond to even before they have the opportunity to undertake their own agenda, as they felt they earned the right to do in the recent election. We should be in for an interesting period in American politics.

John PitneyProfessor of Politics, Claremont McKenna College

President Obama usually delivers his speeches with great skill, and this night was no exception.  His performance was fluid and forceful.

He tried to cast himself and his party as defenders of the middle class.  Politically, that’s a smart tactic, since most Americans see themselves as middle class.  Will the tactic work?  That’s harder to say.  The middle class has not fared well in the past several years.  The wealthy have benefited from a soaring stock market and the poor have benefited from programs such as Obamacare.  The middle class, on the other hand, has suffered declining income and wealth.

There is very little chance that a Republican-controlled Congress will pass much of this program.  The president knows that.  He is not trying to enact new laws so much as he is trying to strengthen his party’s standing in the 2016 election.

On most controversial points, the Democrats applauded while Republicans were silent.  One exception was trade.  Many Democrats are trade protectionists, and they are skeptical of giving the president more authority to make trade agreements.

Joni Ernst’s Republican response was not as effective — but such speeches never are.

In the end, the speeches will not make much difference.  State of the Union addresses do not move public opinion, if only because fewer and fewer people are watching them.   It was on in our house, but my daughter was impatient to get back to the Disney Channel.  She had lots of company across the country.

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

Despite his party losing badly during the 2014 midterm elections, President Obama did not temper the ideological tone or substance of his speech. In fact, he advocated for his positions with confidence, playfulness, and, at times, even glibness.

Aided by his ability to point to various national positive economic indicators, it is not surprising economic issues were an integral part of the President’s speech. The economy – and domestic policy in general – normally constitutes a significant part of SOTU addresses. Moreover, despite the advances that have been made in the economy, the nation still views the economy and unemployment as its most important problem according to recent polling. That said, the President was perhaps at his strongest, and struck his most forceful tones, when he spoke of issues related to foreign policy.

Overall, Obama shed his detached ‘professorial’ image for which he has frequently been criticized in past high profile speeches. He spoke more directly and with more expression and conviction in what was one of his best delivered addresses. While that does not mean he changed the mind of any policymakers in the room, or that he and Congress will be able to work together on major legislation they can both get behind, it might mean that his job approval rating inches up in the coming days.

Steven GreeneAssociate Professor of Political Science, North Carolina State University

In general, I think it was a good speech (for what that’s worth). With an improving economy and improving popularity ratings, as well as recent popular policy moves (e.g., Cuba, immigration) Obama seems to be relaxed and confident. What was most interesting about the speech is that there was almost no effort to reach actual policy compromises with Republicans on political ground where that might be feasible. Obama laid out an unapologetic liberal agenda that basically takes money from the wealthiest Americans to give to the Middle Class, largely through changes in tax law. Proposals to do this have no chance in a Republican-controlled Congress. What they do offer, however, is a stark political contrast between Democrats and Republicans going forward that places the Democrats clearly on the side of the middle class. As the overwhelming majority of Americans consider themselves middle class, this is a good place to be. It was actually remarkably explicit with the oft-used “middle class economics.” It’s not just a catch-phrase, but part of a broader argument that the best way to grow the economy is focusing on what helps the middle class, rather than focusing on what helps the wealthiest and assuming that growth will “trickle down.”

These topics are very important for Americans. Although we finally seem to be seeing a solid economic recovery, most of the gains of the recovery are going to the wealthiest Americans and the middle class is economically stagnating by most measures. There is therefore still fairly broad concern with the economy and the ability of the middle class to get ahead. These should be major issues from now through the ongoing 2016 campaign.

David McCuan, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Sonoma State University

This year’s SOTU speech is filled with policy prescriptions and pronouncements from the Administration that have been rolled out and tested over the last few weeks. There will be little that we don’t know about in the speech since the WH has gone a different route – one where they are trying to get ahead of the curve and one where they seek to drive the political narrative throughout Washington, DC and the country.

This much more activist, aggressive approach has also benefited the President – so far – in terms of an increase in popularity as measured by most major polling organizations.

What we will be watching for tonight and over the next several weeks and months is the degree to which the Administration balances its rhetorical attacks on the GOP with accomplishments and policy movement towards goals shared by common interests.

Historically, divided government is good for moving agendas and legislation among several groups BUT this year may be more difficult – on taxes; immigration; education, and healthcare to name but a few contentious areas. One reason for this is that a little more than 650 days from now, we will be in the heat of another battle – the 2016 presidential election – and that battle is shaping up to be one for the ages. So, to what degree does tonight’s SOTU speech setup a defining narrative for Democrats and Hillary Rodham Clinton? To what degree is the GOP able to counter when there is basically a war going on within the GOP for where that party heads next.

There are some areas that seem to have fallen farther down the scale as the buildup for this speech has occurred. For example, does the President say much about race and race relations in the U.S.? What about Veteran’s healthcare? What about foreign policy, beyond terrorism?

The USA may have turned a corner on terrorism and its macroeconomic recovery, but in much of the world, things are much more tentative and the recovery from war, economic recession, and strife within countries is a thin veneer of recovery and not too deep.

In other words, what does the President leave out of the speech? And what does that tell us about our priorities moving forward and those of our allies around the globe?

Allan Louden, Professor of Communication, Wake Forest University

Beginning and closing with Obama’s the Red/Blue States speech that launch his national political life (“we are still more than a collection of red states and blue states; we are the United States of America”), the State-of-the-Union weaved what at first glance appeared “above the fray, an aspirational optimist call the nation’s higher angels. And there were moments that genuinely touch listeners, Yet . . . .

In contrast to the promise, Obama’s next to last SOU was more the barnstorming speech he should have given at the 2013 Democratic Nominating Convention, the height of the presidential campaign, claiming economic revival, jobs, peace; a virtual cornucopia of progress. Every hot-button issue for a liberal base were invoked, without compromise or apology.

The address was more crusade, standing in stark contrast with Obama’s prior State-of-the-Union talks, speeches toned in bi-partisan appeals, with seduction and shaming summons to persuade Republican or their supporters. The 2015 version raised the ante; defiant, partisan, and familiar in tenor. His address seems more one of agenda setting, painting a vision of American to contrast with the GOP program about to unfold. The speech was a battle call to action.

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