“Our single biggest remaining challenge is to get our economy in a place where the middle class is feeling less squeezed, where incomes sustain families,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the address based on drafts, marked up with highlighters, that were circulating among senior staff members late last week.
“This project is not complete, by any means,” the official added.
With Obama’s popularity up in recent polls, he made the back-to-basics approach clear last week in a meeting with House Democrats, whose inconsistent support will need firming up if his full domestic agenda has any hope of succeeding.
He told lawmakers at a Thursday policy retreat in Virginia that his second-term priority “starts with an economy that works for everybody,” adding that “our economy succeeds and our economy grows when everybody is getting a fair shot.”
“That is a growth agenda — not just an equity agenda, not just a fairness agenda,” Obama said, adding that on Tuesday “I’m going to be talking about job creation right here in the United States of America.”
A president’s first State of the Union speech following reelection has historically been his most ambitious — other than, perhaps, his first. Since it follows an inaugural address, it also gives a president a rare pair of opportunities, just weeks apart, to present the essence of a second-term program.
Many, though, have proved forgettable — more prose than poetry, and more ambition than practicality in actually presenting achievable goals. This may be one of Obama’s last meaningful formal addresses on his domestic agenda, given that a second-term president’s political power at home tends to ebb sharply after midterm elections.
Most first-of-the-second-term State of the Unions also share an essential frame of reference, one that emphasizes first-term successes and the unfinished agenda ahead. As President Ronald Reagan noted in his 1985 address, which followed a first term defined by a slow economic recovery: “We have begun well. But it’s only a beginning.”
Beyond that basic frame, however, post-reelection State of the Union speeches vary based on whether a president wants to signal a grand ambition — as Reagan did on tax policy in 1985 and George W. Bush did two decades later in pledging Social Security changes — or a litany of policies such as those that defined Bill Clinton’s long-winded 1997 address.