Obama to break with tradition in final State of the Union

President Obama will deliver his final State of the Union (SOTU) address on Tuesday. Knowing that he is up against a do-nothing Republican Congress, Obama is skipping the usual long laundry list of legislation he hopes to pass in the coming year. Breaking with recent tradition, he announced in a video preview that this year’s SOTU will look “beyond the next election” and focus on the “big things that will guarantee an even stronger, better, more prosperous America.”

So what might we expect in what could be one of the last big speeches of the Obama presidency?

Part of the night will certainly be dedicated to legacy. In an email to the press, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said that, “Together, we’ve brought America back.” Obama will likely discuss the turnaround that has taken place in the economy, reminding listeners of the 8.2 million private sector jobs created during his second term.

Considerable time will probably be spent discussing achievements on the climate change front, such as the COP21 talks in Paris late last year and the increasing proportion of America’s energy supply that comes from renewable sources. By necessity, foreign affairs will receive a lot of attention, with the military campaign against ISIS still escalating and North Korea’s provocative claim of a hydrogen bomb test.

The Iran nuclear agreement, Obamacare, advances in LGBT equality, and his recently announced executive actions on gun control will round out the look back on the first seven years.

Turning to the future though, McDonough emphasized the President’s determination to not waste the rest of the time he has in office. “What we have left to do is bigger than any one policy initiative or new bill in Congress. This is about who we are, where we’re headed, and what kind of country we want to be.”

This year’s speech has been moved up on the calendar compared to those of the past as the White House seeks to shape public discussions around the primaries. The President is expected to make a case for building on the Affordable Care Act, to push states on Medicaid expansion, controlling drug prices, and the development of a new set of environmental guidelines. There have been hints that he may even discuss a possible 2016 visit to Cuba to meet with President Raul Castro.

The bulk of the speech, though, will apparently be aimed at shaping the bigger direction of American social and political development. For Obama, the ultimate sign of an unsuccessful presidency would be the election of a Republican to the White House in November. That is why much of what he says will make the case for voters to elect a Democratic successor.

Given the fluidity of the Democratic race, however, Obama’s speech will not be a simple Clinton or Sanders pitch. Painting a vision for the country in broad strokes, Obama’s SOTU promises to provide at least a momentary break from the horserace politics that threaten to swallow up discussions about the issues and ideas that actually affect people’s lives.

Judging from the preview by Obama, guidance from McDonough, and the White House website dedicated to the event, the speech will revolve around the theme, “Together, We Make Change Happen.” Emphasizing the collective nature of the struggle for social change and the unity required to bring about progress, Obama will aim his remarks at fighting against cynicism and encouraging participation in the political process.

Following up with the official Republican response will be South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who will certainly try to put a hamper on any enthusiasm that Obama manages to generate. Haley, who was tapped by House Speaker Paul Ryan for the response, is rumored as a possible vice presidential candidate. With a divided presidential field and no clear path ahead for the GOP so far, though, the Haley response will probably draw from the tried-and-true Republican tactic of legislative sabotage.

History may look back at Obama’s last SOTU as one of his most important speeches. Whether that happens or not will depend not just on what he says though, but on what the outcome is in November. That means there is work to do for progressives.

Photo: President Obama at the 2015 State of the Union.   |   AP


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.