“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.
One speech, two parts
White House officials view Obama’s back-to-back speeches as essentially one — a thematic prologue, delivered on Inauguration Day, followed by a prescriptive second chapter detailing the president’s view of the country’s economy.
Obama’s approach, as described by several senior administration officials, will flip the emphasis of his second inaugural address.
In that speech, Obama argued stridently for social equality through an expansion of gay rights, citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and the moral imperative of reducing gun violence and confronting climate change. White House officials acknowledge that he may have overshadowed his underlying message of economic fairness as a result.
On Tuesday evening, Obama will mention issues such as gun control, immigration and climate change primarily in an economic context: job opportunities in clean-energy technology, the fair-play benefits of a legal labor force, and safe schools as a way to drive economic growth.
“If the second inaugural outlined what the president believes is the charge for America over the course of his second term, then this address will be a return to middle-class economics and what the president believes must be done on that front,” said a second senior administration official, who like the first discussed the speech only on the condition of anonymity.
Obama’s return to an overtly economic message is supported in part by polls.
Since his reelection, Obama has sought to move quickly on immigration legislation, hoping the Republicans’ poor showing last year among the fast-growing Latino electorate will provide urgent incentive to act before the midterm congressional races.
In addition, Obama has elevated gun control to a top domestic priority after the December shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 children and six adults.
Obama has also made clear that he intends to do more to address global warming, including the possible use of executive action to regulate factory pollution. He featured the issue in his second inaugural address after expressing personal regret to aides and environmental groups that he did not accomplish more on the issue during his first term.
But recent polling points to a gulf between what Obama has been talking most about publicly since his reelection and what most concerns the American electorate. Far and away, the economy remains the public’s greatest worry.
A Pew Research Center poll published late last month found that the “economy,” “jobs” and the “budget deficit” top the list as the three most cited concerns of respondents. By contrast, “illegal immigration,” “strengthening gun laws” and “global warming” ranked 17th, 18th and 21st.
William A. Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Clinton, said he was struck by Obama’s emphasis in his second inaugural address on social issues rather than economic ones, even as the president sought to draw a line between them.
Galston described Obama’s message as a call for “equality though inclusion” for gay people, for women in the workforce, and even for those alienated from politics by long voting lines and other obstacles to participation.
“But I find it difficult to believe that the balance he will seek to strike in the State of the Union will be the same balance he struck in the second inaugural,” said Galston, who is now at the Brookings Institution. “The emphasis will almost certainly be on the economy rather than on social issues. They are looking at the same America that I am.”
Role of government
With fights over spending, taxes and deficits looming between Obama and Republicans on Capitol Hill, the president is likely to revisit the argument over government’s role at a time of economic uncertainty and growing inequality. He will probably do so, his advisers say, in the context of Washington politics hindering economic progress.
In the first State of the Union of his second term, Reagan called for “a second American revolution” and declared that “four years ago we began to change, forever I hope, our assumptions about government and its place in our lives.”
Reagan made clear to Congress and the public that his goal would be to revise what he called an overly burdensome tax code — which he, like Obama has, criticized in part for having too many loopholes.
But Washington’s partisanship during Obama’s tenure has had a more profound effect on the economy and its recovery than it did when Reagan began his second term.
In that respect, Obama is more akin to Clinton, whose 1997 address came after confrontations with Republicans in Congress that shut down the government. “We face no imminent threat, but we do have an enemy,” Clinton said. “The enemy of our time is inaction.”
With decisions to be made over automatic spending cuts and borrowing limits, Obama will warn again, as a prime-time television audience watches, that the members of Congress before him must first do no harm to a still-fragile economy.
“He hopes to be able to put that in the most stark terms possible for the American people,” said one of the senior administration officials.
The past three two-term presidents have delivered this post-reelection State of the Union at times of cold war (Reagan), no war (Clinton) and hot war (Bush).
Obama’s tenure falls toward the hot-war end of the spectrum, and he will highlight the end of the Iraq war on his watch and outline the scheduled withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan by the end of next year.
To the extent that he dwells on foreign policy at all, Obama will probably focus on how the United States’s role in the world will serve economic interests at home. It is a State of the Union message not only for an American audience but also for one watching internationally.
“We need a strong economy to lead the world, and leading the world contributes to our strength at home,” said Jon. B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Alterman said he is often struck by how closely foreign leaders, diplomats and others follow “the president’s back-and-forth with Congress.”
“In this globalized world, it matters to people what happens in U.S. politics every day,” he said. “And if it seems like we can’t connect our intentions to our abilities, that is seen not only as a domestic problem for us but also as a problem for the world.”