Obama’s last SOTU: What was said and why

What dp o you think about the last SOTU speech of President Barack Obama in the context of his Presidency and why do you think that Obama has said what he said? Read few comments.

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

Entering his last year of office, President Obama seemed at his most relaxed and, at times, glib upon delivering his final State of the Union address.

Overall, the president spoke in broader terms than he has in past addresses – eschewing episodic stories of specific individuals (who, in the past, were frequently guests of the First Lady) for broader themes to illustrate his policy positions related to the economy, environmental issues, and national security.

By refraining to outline a long string of specific, clear goals in his speech, the president attempted to insulate himself from the perception of failure to accomplish substantive goals as he once again faces a Republican-led Congress in his final ‘lame duck’ year in office.

In contrast to the dire discourse that is used in the political theater of the 2016 presidential race, there were clear strains of optimism in Obama’s address about the current state of America – in regards to job growth and the nation’s powerful economic and military standing in the world.

However, the final chapter of the president’s speech – his plea to ‘fix’ the state of U.S. politics – was an 11th hour half-hearted attempt to elevate the political environment in a cycle which will likely be the nastiest in recent decades, with spending in the presidential race poised to smash previous records.

After seven years of political polarization, it is unlikely there were many minds that could be changed by anything the president said tonight. His supporters will continue to support him – even if they disagree with some of his positions – and his opponents will continue to oppose him, even if they agree with some of what he said.

Allan Louden, Professor of Communication, Wake Forest University

In his past State-of-the-Union messages, President Obama, lectured Congress and the American people on the necessity of bi-partisanship, tonight he enacted it. It goes without saying that the speech was profoundly partisan, took political aim at candidates running for president, but it was more than an adjunct to the campaign, it was a statement of his bottom-line beliefs. It felt he was reasoning with real people, an authentic representation.

Obama acknowledged political skirmishes, even paralysis, yet he transcended; defining what Democracy should mean to all voters, a primer on citizenship’s requirements, calling on our better angels, our shared values, and our common future to guide understanding.

Often delicately partisan the speech nonetheless transcended. Obama offered a reasoned, colloquially presented, speech about proportion. Even as individual are threatened, no one threaten the existence of the country. Even as economic opportunity is uneven the economy remains the strongest in the world. Even as we invent enemies, the world goes to Washington for leadership, not Moscow or Beijing. We have it in our power to become less terrified.

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

The “test” of a traditional State of the Union (SOTU) speech is that it accomplish three things – is the speech aspirational?  Is the speech optimistic?  And is the speech presidential?

In this regard, President Obama’s speech was one that sounded much like a SOTU from his first term – after the campaign themes of “hope” and “change” in 2008.  This was a speech about that “vision thing” where the President laid out a tone that was above the hyper-partisan politics of D.C., but also was political in the sense of talking about the economy, the Affordable Care Act, and other accomplishments.

There was anticipation that this speech would be somewhat of a victory lap by the President, but there was less of this than many thought would occur, and more about trying to move about the politics of the moment.  This speech had the task of “elevating our politics.”  In this sense, the oratory style and the tone of the President tonight was less of his common lecturing style and more about laying out a vision for broader, deeper issues shared across political and cultural boundaries.

The speech, though, does take place within a difficult electoral environment.  The public is enraged at a palpable level, partisanship is heated in this election year, and there is a quality around the body politic that is looking past this presidency.  So a key component of tonight’s speech is that President Obama and the White House were angling to stay relevant this political season.  So the interactive, split-screen component aimed at social media during the SOTU was also aimed at engaging the Rising American Electorate (RAE).  This is a younger, more diverse, more likely to be single, and more secular group that is important for the General Election in November.  In that sense, the President and the Administration were setting up the argument for a third term for the Democrats – a difficult task but one that began tonight.  Along with building the Obama Presidency legacy, the goal is and was to remain relevant and not a lame duck.

Diana Carlin, Professor of Communication, Saint Louis University

First, a STOU address is a unique speech and has evolved since the founding fathers (who didn’t give speeches but sent “reports”). It is a combination of an epideictic speech (an Aristotelian term for a speech of praise and blame) and a deliberative speech (Aristotelian for policy or decision making). Most SOTU speeches are heavier on the latter in that they are laundry lists of programs that the President wants to see accomplished by Congress. Final speeches, such as this one, tend to be less so and are more philosophical.

Obama’s speech had shades of 2008 campaign speeches where he talked about the importance of what unites us as a people rather than what divides us–the “United” element of United States. He revisited his campaign image of politics that rose above partisanship and put the country first but admitted that it hasn’t been realized under his watch. He expressed a belief that it is still possible. The speech was thematically organized, blended accomplishments with a few suggested policy changes, debunked campaign rhetoric based on fear and negativism, and called on traditional American values to unify and move the country forward again. He tried to answer the common Republican charge that Democrats are about big government and programs to solve the nation’s problems but that the Democratic approach is the problem. His examples of Wall Street causing the financial crisis not food stamps and corporate profits not being used to improve wages were attempts to debunk the image and also refute that the private sector can solve economic problems if the government leaves them alone. Another was the admission that some regulations do get in the way of the American spirit of innovation–this was one place where he indicated a willingness to work with Congress. He directly challenged the American people and subtly pointed out that they ultimately control the tenor of politics through participation, lack of it, and engagement in democratic practices other than voting.

He used humor effectively but also “jabbed” at Republican candidates and office holders with statements about climate deniers, career politicians with pensions and health care that average Americans don’t have, and doomsayers who accuse others of being unpatriotic while stirring up hated and exaggerated claims of America’s weaknesses that actually run counter to natural American optimism and “can do” spirit. He touted his successes–which is not something he has done effectively as President–and admitted the reality of conflict is a part of politics. He also admitted that he fell short of his goal to change the tenor of Congress, but he did not go the next step to say what he is going to do differently in his last year to reach out to Congress. He started well with complimenting Speaker Paul Ryan and the coalition he built to avert a budget crisis, but he needed to come back to that theme in the conclusion when he spoke about doing more. He has been criticized since the beginning of his administration for not working well with Congress, but without a specific promise to do better or to seek their advice on how to better work together, the message fell short. Overall, he began structuring the themes that his farewell address will emphasize about accomplishments, and he attempted to rise above partisan politics by looking at four challenges that will go decades beyond the 2016 election and next presidential term. The content and structure were more statesmanlike than political, but some of the content (as I indicated) was partisan and less conciliatory than it could have been to achieve what he wanted to accomplish–to set the tone for a final year that is not controlled by the 2016 race but rises above it in a way that ultimately benefits everyone–even members of the opposition.

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

Prior to Pres. Obama’s final State of the Union address, the White House had promised a speech that would be different from previous ones and also promised a shorter one. Though he delivered on the first promise, the second one fell by the wayside. They promised there would be no laundry list of requests for congressional action and that the president would speak directly to the American people. The speech started out looking like the same old approach but began to take a very different turn, one that reflected the very unusual nature of American politics in this election year. Though he did list items on which he wished congressional action he did so briefly, quickly, and at the very beginning of the speech.

In typical Obama fashion the speech was carefully delivered with precision and emotion. It was perhaps among the very best of Obama addresses. He began by laying out four questions that he wanted to address.

1. How to give everyone a fair chance in the new economy.

2. How to make technology work for us not against us.

3. How to make America safe without being the world’s policeman.

4. How to reflect what’s best in us, not worst.

The speech was very much a reaction to the current state of American politics and as that theme emerged it became clear what Obama was trying to accomplish. He began with an olive branch to new Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan by praising the latter’s initiatives on addressing American poverty. In perhaps one of the few real new initiatives he called for a “moonshot” on curing cancer (a reference to Pres. Kennedy’s 1960s call for reaching the moon by the end of that decade) and assigned the job to his vice president, Joe Biden, who just recently lost a son to brain cancer. He then launched into a spirited and somewhat detailed defense of the so-called “Obama doctrine” of foreign-policy. He directly addressed the calls by his Republican opponents for a more aggressive approach to terrorism by declaring that we are the most powerful country on earth and more respected than ever. He noted that we face no threat from other countries but rather our threats are from lone wolves and failed states. He observed that the Middle East is going through a period of change brought on by long standing developments and circumstances and the international system is trying to adapt to that new reality. He stated forcefully that this is not a threat to our existence, and though we must focus on destroying ISIL, this is not World War III. Importantly, he challenged the current Republican orthodoxy, firmly declaring that ISIL does not represent Islam. In the final declaration of our resolve and determination he declared that ISIL will learn—” just ask Bin Laden.”

He finally returned to his fourth and clearly his central point, a strong and spirited renunciation of the Trumpism emerging in American politics. Turning to our future he called for unity to address our real problems. In one of the most powerful and clearly humble moments of the speech he expressed that perhaps his largest regret of his seven years in the presidency was that the national rancor had increased. He apologized for his inadequacies and observed that perhaps a president like Lincoln or Roosevelt could have overcome this problem. While skirting the issue and leaving it unsaid that perhaps the fault lay with his adversaries as much as himself he wound up his speech with a number of points aimed at reflecting the need for America to turn away from divisions, the flames of which seem to be fanned by the leading candidates for the Republican nomination.

The State of the Union message is required by our Constitution but wasn’t always delivered as an address to Congress, but rather was sometimes simply a written message, though the former has been the convention for some years now. Somewhere in the message the president always addresses that central question “what is the state of our union.” In a reaffirmation that we are much better off today (after seven years of his leadership) and directly countering the alarmists of the other party who he feels would use fear to divide us, he saved that for last and closed with the simple but forceful statement “the state of our union is strong.”

 

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