For the majority of people watching Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address tonight, January 20, 2017 really can’t come quickly enough. For some, like myself, the end of the Obama Presidency is a chance to correct numerous glaring errors and put the nation on the path to prosperity after nearly a decade of failed policies. On the other side of the aisle, folks are hoping that an end of the Obama Administration will mean the end of a lame duck progressive agenda that has no means, beyond iffy “executive actions” (even Democrats shy away from whether this is a good long-term governing strategy), and a return to a legislative program geared towards social restructuring. Now, obviously, both of these hopes (be they right, left, or center) all presuppose their own victory this coming November. This is the shadow that looms large over Obama’s final State of the Union Address.
When President Clinton gave his final State of the Union in 2000, much of the speech was geared towards advancing an agenda that could help his Vice President, Al Gore, who was seeking to follow Clinton in office. Notably, Clinton focused on unfinished parts of his agenda. President Bush’s final State of the Union in 2008 was heavily weighted on a foreign policy agenda and wrapped up talking about the Administration’s achievements and the nation’s strengths.
So, what should we anticipate hearing after Obama ascends to the podium tonight?
- Gun Control- This will likely be the President’s last big opportunity to talk about gun control and the strategies he wants to employ to limit or restrict firearms purchases. The President is leaving a seat empty in the First Lady’s box to commemorate the victims of gun violence. With this fact known, we can already see that the President intends to make gun violence a centerpiece of his final speech. While we should not doubt the President’s sincerity and conviction in his belief that more restrictions would reduce crime, gun control is also an issue that would help Democrats in the Fall. The President knows that his Party not only wants to keep a Democrat in the White House but can almost taste a Senate majority (the GOP has to defend a whopping 24 seats). A visceral and emotional issue like gun control where liberals can paint themselves as “reasonable” could help them pick up Senate seats and make Republicans look like radicals and monsters. Expect the President to focus on the human toll of gun violence and to heap blame on the Republican Congress for failing to act on gun control initiatives. You can also assume that the President will push for pieces of legislation aimed at advancing that message.
- Terrorism- President Obama’s worst marks from voters come from the perception that he is weak on foreign affairs and terrorism. Expect Obama to reiterate some of his, admittedly vague, plans to defeat the Islamic State. While some policy folks think that he may take more than a few minutes talking about his foreign policy aims, I’d expect the President to skip most discussion of the terrorism issue in the Middle East. The President is keenly aware that this will be an issue he is, for good or ill, passing along to his successor.
- “What Makes America Great”- This is a normal piece of rhetoric we hear from every politician. Expect to hear about “John, the farmer from Iowa, who just a year ago couldn’t afford healthcare” and “Bob, the veteran, who joins us tonight, who is able to go back to school” etc. The “real American stories” are a hallmark of most Presidents’ Addresses (and Obama loves it). There’s a good chance that the President will turn this trope into “and there’s an empty chair of a child who never got to know what makes America great” or a sentiment to that effect.
- Social Policy Advancements- The President will certainly plan to address the advancements made for different groups during his tenure. He will likely point out that his Administration was in power when marriage equality became the law of the land (though the decision was written by a Reagan appointee, just saying).
- “This isn’t a goodbye speech, I still have a whole lot left to accomplish”- This or words to this effect are bread and butter of a final State of the Union. The President’s legislative agenda is going nowhere in Congress.
- Some foreign policy reminders- While the President will like skirt by the Islamic State, he will probably push for ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. With significant pushback from Democrats, this is one of the rare occasions where the Republicans will have to partner with the White House to advance part of the President’s agenda. The President will also say something about the historic Iran Deal. Also expect some passing words saying that “America’s image in the world is strong and we are a force for justice, etc.”
- Income inequality, justice reform, policing practices- These are issues the President might touch on, but he’ll likely leave them for the campaigns to deal with.
- That “we must continue to work towards a better America, etc”
- That the “State of our Union is strong.”
What you won’t hear in the State of the Union:
- The name of Donald Trump.
The President will likely want to recapture a little of the soaring rhetoric from his 2008 campaign. While his legislative agenda will generally not come to fruition, that does not mean the President can’t work to push his message out to voters.
Bonus: What to expect from the GOP Response
Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina will be giving the GOP’s response to the State of the Union address. Governor Haley, a minority female governor who is seen as a rising star in the Party, is likely auditioning for the Vice Presidency on an establishment candidate’s ticket or for the Presidency in 2020 (if the GOP is unsuccessful this year). Haley oversaw the removal of the confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse earlier this year and struck a moderate tone on Syrian refugees. While she has significant detractors inside of South Carolina, she is still regarded highly in establishment Republican circles.
She just needs to avoid awkward sips of water… and basically repeating any of the other, many, problems from former GOP Responses.