The SOTU Agenda: Avoiding Congress, on Capitol Hill

January 28
Pres. Obama in an earlier pivot towards a unilateral strategy (White House photo)
Pres. Obama in an earlier pivot towards a unilateral strategy (White House photo)

In December 1986, a young White House staffer named Mitch Daniels – yes, this one —wrote a memo giving his thoughts on President Ronald Reagan’s upcoming State of the Union address. “Everyone favors some sort of visionary, thematic SOTU as opposed to a legislative laundry list,” Daniels wrote. He added: “This is an especially sound idea when your laundry consists mainly of sweat socks and old underwear.”

The 1987 State of the Union in practice, by the way, was book-ended by paeans to the Constitution (which turned 200 that year) and to we, the American people (“you know they’re Americans because their spirit is as big as the universe and their hearts are bigger than their spirits.”)  But in between came the laundry list. Reagan asked Congress to put more pressure on the Nicaraguan government (and to move past the Iran-contra scandal), to support the Strategic Defense Initiative and a strong posture vis-a-vis the Soviet bloc, and to expect him to send a “complete series of … special messages—on budget reform, welfare reform, [and] competitiveness, including education, trade, worker training and assistance, agriculture, and other subjects.”

And indeed, this is the norm for the State of the Union address. Back in the Johnson administration, a staffer complained that “everybody wants his own pet project mentioned, and the State of the Union message tends to evolve into a laundry list…. The situation has become almost ridiculous.” And going back to LBJ’s first full term in 1965, presidents have asked for more than 1400 legislative actions, according to research by political scientists Donna Hoffman and Alison Howard — that’s an average of 34 per year. There have been efforts to make the speech less boringly comprehensive. President Nixon sent no fewer than four separate topical State of the Union messages in 1973 (on human services, law enforcement, foreign affairs, and natural resources) to facilitate a shorter SOTU address. But as George H.W. Bush’s communications director David Demarest noted, “Every State of the Union address is the same…. They are initially thematic speeches, but they become much more inclusive.”

Normally the only excitement is whether the list of domestic requests will come before the list of foreign policy requests. This year, though, the word from the Obama administration has been clear: that the State of the Laundry List is weak. That the president will stress not legislative proposals but executive action. That today’s announcement of an executive order raising the minimum wage for new federal contract employees is meant to be emblematic. Some of this seems to spring from the 2014 version of the Daniels memo — this one from Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer, who wrote to warn the president that he risks becoming marginalized if he is judged by his success in Congress (which, in 2013, was pretty sparse). Thus for more than a week the president has been touting his “pen and his phone” — the pen to be used to sign orders rather than to draft bills.

Granted, this is perhaps the third time that the Obama White House has announced this strategy. Since the Republicans gained a House majority in 2010 the president has repeatedly said “we can’t wait” for legislative action, complete with a White House Web site listing the fruits of this impatience. A wide range of executive actions have preceded the minimum wage order, attracting both praise and approbation from various quarters. (These actions, it should be noted, tend to be conflated — those that are completely legitimate along with those that push the envelope of administrative power — but that’s a subject for a future post.)

What is different here is the audience and the prominence of the promise. Will Obama really move from asking for legislation — if only to attack a “do nothing Congress” — to a more browbeating “doing it all myself” stance during the SOTU itself, in the House chamber? According to the invaluable American Presidency Project at the University of California-Santa Barbara, presidents have only used the phrase “executive order” 10 times in the history of the SOTU address and never more than once per speech. The first time was in 1947, when Harry Truman discussed civil rights; most of the remaining usages are from 1988 or later, reflecting the rise of the administrative presidency, with seven of the 10 since 1995. Obviously this phrasing is not the only measure of presidential reference to unilateral action. But it does suggest that waving the flag of unilateralism in front of Congress has generally been done rather more discreetly.

Assuming it occurs, will tearing up the laundry list work? Moving to a tighter embrace with the administrative presidency may get more done, substantively, than seeking new legislation — the president may have judged that it could hardly achieve less. It is less clear whether this will move the public needle on the Obama presidency. In the end, presidents are judged by legislative achievements. Carter aide (and later Clinton administration official) Stu Eizenstat noted simply that “People judge strong presidents versus weak presidents on the basis of whether they perceive that the president is able to get Congress to do what he wants.”  The key question, then: Will an end-around the Congress, in front of Congress, make Obama look stronger? Or merely evasive?

Andrew Rudalevige is Thomas Brackett Reed Professor of Government at Bowdoin College. He specializes in the study of American political institutions, primarily the presidency and the interbranch relations, with a recent focus on presidential management of the executive branch.
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Erik Voeten · January 28