President Obama? No. George H.W. Bush in his 1992 State of the Union address, delivered 10 months before voters made him a one-term president. No other president has been able to claim that dubious, single-term distinction in the last three decades.
That could change this year as Obama, his approval ratings low and joblessness high, can expect a tough fight for another term. His State of the Union address on Tuesday will serve as the highest profile argument for why he should keep his job.
But Obama’s task as he heads to Capitol Hill is a particularly difficult one. He is building a populist campaign message around his fight with an “obstructionist” Congress, only partly controlled by the opposition Republicans. He also will be making his case for another four years at a time when the economy, while showing signs of improvement, is still viewed by most Americans as a huge problem.
Obama’s message is aimed at dual audiences Tuesday — Congress, the target of his political animosity; and the American people, the target of his political ambitions. How he delivers the argument will test his rhetorical dexterity and set the tone for the year ahead. The next day he leaves Washington for a trip through five swing states where he will seek to amplify his State of the Union message.
“Governing is one thing, campaigning is another — and the latter becomes far more pronounced in an election-year State of the Union,” said Robert Dallek, a presidential scholar. “One of the themes you’ll hear is a failure of Congress. That could come in a call to stop thinking about politics and start thinking about the good of the nation. Of course, many of them don’t share that view and that’s where the tension in the room will lie.”
Obama’s senior advisers say he does not intend to shy away from his recent attacks on Congress or of the economic policies promoted by his Republican rivals, although he may sand off the sharp edges he has employed outside the Beltway in recent weeks to make his case.
Advisers say he will use the State of the Union to echo and expand on the economic themes he raised last month in Osawatomie, Kan., where he offered a populist defense of imperiled middle class ambitions. Many in his party believed it was his most effective economic address to date.
“Those were the themes, and this will be the blueprint for how to get there,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the direction the president will take. “It will be thematically consistent. But, as a State of the Union speech, stylistically it will be different.”