State of the Union

Prediction: Obama's Last SOTU Address Won't Really Be That Different from the Others

They're always full of broad elementary civics class blather.


I did just buy a Powerball ticket, so I guess we'll see …
Credit: {Guerrilla Futures | Jason Tester} / photo on flickr

So this is your narrative for tonight's State of the Union address:

The White House is billing President Obama's seventh and final State of the Union address as "untraditional," an opportunity to move beyond the usual laundry list of policy proposals and ambitions toward a broader consideration of the president's legacy and the country's direction.

The president's top aides have characterized this change in approach as a way for Obama to convey his optimism for the country and his hopes for how America might remember him. But the decision to forgo the usual catalog of ideas for congressional action says a lot about where the president finds himself, at the start of his final year in office, as he stares out at the joint session TuesdayWith both chambers of Congress run by Republicans and the city Obama once promised to unite more fractured and dug in than ever, there are very few items left on which this president and this Congress can come to agreement. Instead, as both Obama and the Republicans who run the legislative branch angle to help their respective parties win the White House, the fight has moved to the battleground of ideas and persuading actors other than the federal government to advance their respective agendas.

Obama's pitch to the country will be that staying the course that his administration laid out, mostly through legislation in his first two years in office when Democrats had congressional majorities — and then through executive action afterward — will bring about a better America.

That's from Yahoo! Politics. My response? Uh, where's the part where this is any different from any other State of the Union Address. Here's how Politico described the plan:

The closest Obama's going to come to 2016 politics in his State of the Union is setting the grand vision and offering an optimistic, aspirational contrast to the doomsday at-the-barricades mentality that's dominating the GOP primary race.

In what will likely be his final night with all the national attention focused on him, Obama's taking a last shot at telling America what he thinks it can be, and trying to brand the future.

It won't be a recap of his presidency, nor will Obama make the case for the third term that Clinton's been insisting on the trail she doesn't want. He also won't spend much time talking up the good parts of his record to push back on what Republicans call the failed Obama-Clinton economy and foreign policy.

Sorry, but I'm calling bullshit.

First of all, every State of the Union address is infused with hopeful, drippy nonsense as it is. Here's some random civics textbook word salad from 2014's SOTU:

The point is, there are millions of Americans outside Washington who are tired of stale political arguments, and are moving this country forward.  They believe, and I believe, that here in America, our success should depend not on accident of birth, but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams.  That's what drew our forebears here.  It's how the daughter of a factory worker is CEO of America's largest automaker; how the son of a barkeeper is Speaker of the House; how the son of a single mom can be President of the greatest nation on Earth. 

Beyond that, we've already heard that the usual crop of newsmakers from the previous year will be there as guests, and the president has absurdly decided to leave a seat in the House gallery empty to symbolize deaths from gun violence. The possibility that Obama won't mention any of this stuff from the last year is a bit hard to swallow, as is the idea that Obama can make a case for Democratic Party votes without actually detailing anything recent.

In the event Obama does attempt to make the argument that executive actions are the way to get the president's agenda done, doesn't that essentially kind of play into Donald Trump's hands? Trump's candidacy is pretty much predicated on not giving one single damn about any separation of federal powers. Maybe Trump actually is the natural consequence of 16 years of steadily weakening legislative oversight. Maybe be careful what you wish for, President Obama.

If anything, this whole push to the media that this speech is going to somehow be different comes off like a desperate effort to get people to tune in to a lame duck speech from a president whose delivery style and content has become repetitive and predictable. I would gather that's typical of any two-term president. Don't take it as an Obama slam. All presidents' speeches start becoming pretty predictable toward the end.

There's nothing terribly surprising that a Democratic president wants to end his term encouraging voters to embrace his Democratic vision of a Democratic America whose idea of "unity" involves Democratic leaders getting whatever it is that they want. And it won't be terribly surprising when Republican South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's rebuttal agrees with the basic idea, but just replaces all Democrats with Republicans.

Meanwhile, the rest of America increasingly tunes out, and fewer and fewer of them are willing to identify themselves as members of either party. The future of American politics seems to be looking less like what either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party is hoping for.