If the ‘once-every-four-years’ inaugural addresses are the high and visionary type of speeches that presidents give, then the State of the Union addresses are the means by which presidents fill in that vision with specificity.
This year’s combination of inaugural and State of the Union addresses by President Obama certainly did that in tandem, but didn’t bring anything new to the table beyond items that would rate high in public opinion, but no real chance to becoming formal policy.
The speech seemed to be three distinct phases wrapped into one, with no clear overarching theme or coherency beyond broad appeals to the nation’s middle class.
Perhaps it was coming out of the breaking news of cornering of the California manhunt that dampened an energetic atmosphere to the speech’s beginning, but it was surprising that the president began with the focus of the GOP: The economy, the budget, and the deficit.
He did call for a “balanced approach to cut spending and raising revenue,” and an example of the president’s willingness to meet the Republicans was adopting the Simpson-Bowles proposed reforms regarding Medicare.
In the second section, the president took a linguini checklist approach, throwing out idea after idea on a broad array of topics, from pre-K to a hike in the minimum wage to climate change. Granted, State of the Union addresses equate to a laundry list of policy goals and legislative aspirations that presidents desire. After all, the constitution gives the chief executive the opportunity to present “such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
But most of the time, the list is simply placed into the desk drawer and forgotten about within a few weeks.
The opportunity most missed by the address was the lack of a transformative approach to governing a polarized and politicized system. With the inaugural address having set a much more progressive tone, and perhaps indicating that this is what the real Barack Obama wants in his presidential legacy, his State of the Union left unanswered the simple question: What does President Obama want the country to be like at the end of his term?
We can all rally around “middle-class values” and “jobs,” but what would be the bold and new sense of breaking the logjam of our current system to achieve that vision?
In the end, a vision needs direction and specifics to be achieved, and while there was a checklist of notable and, at times, ambitious wants, the sense of what that will make for the country as a whole was left wanting.
The final component, though, is what we will probably see as the lasting legacy of the speech, and that was the passionate ending related to the topic that seems to be the president’s focus: Guns.
By the end of State of the Union addresses, after hearing the usual wish list, most presidents give the sense of where the country should be by the next year.
Instead, President Obama ended with campaign-like rhetoric on one of the most divisive issues confronting the nation. Yet he acknowledged that the divide was not something that could be bridged with his call for a vote in Congress.
Having a vote is one thing, but when presidents want something, they usually frame it as “pass this now,” lending the full weight and power of the presidency behind it. Perhaps it was a realization that while the debate still remains hot, no real sense of accomplishment can be achieved anytime soon.
It is interesting that the president is going back into a campaign style after the State of the Union, starting in Asheville and highlighting the manufacturing initiatives in the North Carolina mountains.
On the same day as the president’s address, a major forum was held in Raleigh on revitalizing manufacturing in the state. Governor McCrory announced an administrative focus on producing things in the state and creating a new assistant secretary of commerce focused on manufacturing.
What a refreshing sight it would have been to see a Democratic president and a Republican governor come together and address the opportunity for Americans to make things again in our country.
Now that would have been a plate of wish-list linguine that everyone could have sunk their teeth into.