Gerald Ford was the last departing president to do that. In 1981 Jimmy Carter sent a written “message” in lieu of the “address” on his way out the White House door. But after that the tradition died in favor of an early term speech by the incoming president. See the very useful link to all prior speeches and messages, along with a narrative history of the genre by Gerhard Peters, at the University of California-Santa Barbara’s invaluable American Presidency Project.
Obama, like his more recent predecessors, will probably give a “farewell address” instead.
So what should we take away from all the hoopla?
Whither the laundry list?
The White House had told reporters that this year’s speech would skip the usual list of legislative requests in favor of a high-toned address about “the future.” The laundry list was to be discarded.
Normally the SOTU follows a formula: Claim that the state of the union is strong (perhaps “very strong”); claim that the president’s economic policy is working; throw out many domestic policy proposals; trace some foreign policy greatest hits (this comes near the end, since it involves praising the troops, for whom everyone in the chamber will reliably applaud); and linger in a rhetorically uplifting way on American character and American exceptionalism. God bless America – and out.
To be sure, the smaller the hamper, the more chance of an interesting speech. But the lack of a laundry list may not stem from high-mindedness. In December 1986, a young White House staffer named Mitch Daniels – now the former governor of Indiana — wrote a memo giving his thoughts on 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.”
Indeed, Obama’s speech did not contain many novel ideas. Nor was it structured quite as imaginatively as advertised – though we had to wait to nearly the last sentence, rather than the first, to find out that the state of our union is indeed “strong.” (Phew!)
He stressed four themes, rather than “that traditional list of proposals.” But those themes were true to the formula above. He started with the economy, moved to technology (mostly, though not entirely, domestically focused), moved to foreign policy, and argued we should “make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst.” In each, lots of specific proposals just happened to sneak in, giving ample opportunity to brag about his administration’s accomplishments, from health care to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Some of the expected issues – in part because of their bipartisan patina – did show up. The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade act, for instance, got a short paragraph (“approve this agreement”). But most did not. For example, Obama limited his discussion of criminal justice reform to half of an early throwaway sentence, without mentioning specifics like mandatory minimum sentencing. He did not talk about his proposal to pump $500 million into the mental health system.
It’s possible that, as political scientist Frances Lee has argued more broadly, Obama worried that endorsing such actions in such a prominent forum might actually drive Republicans away. But in any case his most sustained themes – whether Main Street over Wall Street, climate change, the impotence of ISIS as existential threat — seemed aimed directly at Thursday night’s Republican primary debate stage. For those GOP candidates, Obama had a clear message about the right choice between alternative policy paths: It was, inevitably, Obama’s preferred choice. Indeed, the president returned to professor-in-chief mode. He was palpably disappointed in those who have not learned the lessons “we should have learned… by now” but were instead spouting “hot air” or purveying “TV sound bites.”
The guest list, released in advance, hinted at the themes. According to the White House press release on the matter, it went so far as to “personify President Obama’s term in office.” Normally the guests are there to prompt bipartisan applause. Not this time. One guest symbolized same-sex marriage: Jim Obergefell of the Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges. An “empty seat” was left to symbolize victims of gun violence. (Still, despite the hype of Obama’s recent executive actions, the word “gun” only appeared once in the speech’s text.)
In short, little here was intended to reach across the aisle – especially notable for a speech that argued for reducing political polarization. Small wonder that CBS reported after the speech that Republicans applauded en masse only once during the speech. (And yes, it was for the troops.)
Obama did urge passage of a new authorization for the use of military force regarding ISIS, though in a way that managed to sound like he was taunting Congress for failing to act. “Take a vote!” he said, while noting he would continue to act without any such vote.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) played down to those low expectations in his comments after the speech. There was no point in a debate, he said, if it would not change the policy. And he charged the president with various “subagendas,” including trying “to limit the next president’s ability to deal with this in the manner he (sic) sees fit.” That the separation of powers – i.e., that presidents cannot act simply as they “see fit” – has become a “subagenda” might surprise those who have a grasp of basic constitutional principles. (For a longer discussion of the AUMF non-debate, see here.)
Another piece of unfinished business is the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which Obama promised to close his first week in office. He hasn’t.
Some speculated that Obama would make a bold statement about closing it – perhaps promising to do so by military order, claiming commander-in-chief power to override the statutory restrictions Congress has imposed. These include prohibitions on using appropriated funds to close the facility or transfer its prisoners to American soil.
Speaker Ryan argued with some validity that this would constitute “knowingly commanding the military to go against the law.” The Bush administration claimed it had the inherent authority to do just that. The Obama administration has preferred statutory grounding for its actions (even when those actions look very much like Bush’s). Unilateral action to close the prison would be a serious change of course.
The White House thus far has avoided that shift. Press secretary Josh Earnest said earlier in the week that “ultimately, to accomplish the goal of closing it, we’re going to need Congress to remove some obstacles that have prevented it thus far.” But Obama himself at least kept the option open. He said he would “keep working to shut down the prison at Guantanamo,” but without committing to how.
The audience for the SOTU is not always the people in the House chamber. President Bill Clinton’s lengthy latter-term SOTUs were panned by pundits but – by their very wonkishness — effectively communicated that the president was working hard at his job even as the Monica Lewinsky scandal engulfed Washington.
Likewise, Obama’s speech was only intermittently aimed at his immediate audience. Instead it sought to draw contrasts, consistent with his conviction that public concerns with his policies are a matter of communication rather than substance. It strove to frame perceptions of his administration — and the agenda of the 2016 campaign. As he swiped at Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the president also hoped to persuade Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to stay the Obama course – during the campaign and beyond.
In short, the speech was, as advertised, about the future. But it was about the future assessment of the Obama legacy.