When President Obama strides into the House of Representatives to address a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, he will command the nation's attention for one of the most important speeches of his career. His State of the Union address will provide the opportunity to set his priorities for 2010, offer insights into whether he will adopt a fight or flight strategy in dealing with his adversaries, and, overall, provide an opportunity to lift himself out of a political trough.
"The State of the Union is a chance for him to reset the conversation," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "It's the platform where he can tell the average American worker and taxpayer it's all about them. That's the message people want to hear. People are really hurting, and he needs to address the needs of people who feel they are living on the edge."
Healthcare will be a major theme, although it's unclear what kind of legislation can pass now that the Democrats have lost their 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. That happened last week when Republican Scott Brown won a special election in Massachusetts to fill the seat of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. With Brown in office, the GOP has 41 votes, the minimum needed to block Obama's agenda using parliamentary maneuvers. So Obama's options will be much more limited than they were a year ago, when he took office amid great jubilation among Democrats and considerable optimism that he could end Washington's long era of partisanship and polarization. Those hopes have dramatically faded amid relentless GOP opposition and intensifying public concern that he is spending too much money and injecting the federal government into too many areas of national life.
For months, White House officials have privately admitted that healthcare legislation, Obama's top domestic priority, was pulling attention and energy away from other priorities, including job creation, which has become of utmost importance to everyday Americans affected by the 10 percent unemployment rate. "We need to finalize healthcare," says a senior White House official. "It hangs over everything and tends to overshadow everything."
It's unclear how that resolution might happen, but Obama will use his State of the Union speech to attempt to clarify a broader agenda that will include creating jobs, strengthening the overall economy, cutting the deficit, and preserving national security, according to White House aides.
Meanwhile, Republicans argue that Obama and Democrats in Congress have dug themselves into a deep pit as big-spending liberals who have bailed out banks and auto companies but failed to give the middle class enough help.
"The most troubling story line for him is his constantly overpromising and underdelivering," says a prominent GOP strategist who advised a major GOP presidential candidate in 2008. "The electorate has a lot of anxiety about spending in Washington and deficits and the Democrats' healthcare bill." The strategist adds that Americans are fed up. "People are done with the talk. They want results. People feel that the stimulus has been a waste and that there's always another bill that the Democrats are trying to pass. Obama and the Democrats are marinating in excess. . . . He doesn't challenge the status quo. And there is no bipartisanship." Obama's job approval has dropped 15 to 20 points to about 50 percent since his inauguration, with independent voters increasingly disenchanted with him.
And Brown's underdog victory in Massachusetts has given the GOP a huge boost. "This is rocket fuel for the party in terms of candidate recruitment and fundraising," says Frank Donatelli, chairman of the conservative GOPAC political action committee and President Ronald Reagan's former White House political director.
Now, there are signs that Obama will change his approach, at least rhetorically, as he shifts to more of a populist message of siding with everyday Americans against big banks, insurance companies, and Wall Street. One of his latest proposals is to tax banks that received federal bailout money but are now giving huge compensation packages to their top executives.
On a personal level, White House aides are weary from the seemingly endless crises of the past year, including the near collapse of the financial industry, the recession, unemployment, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, threats from terrorists that crystallized in the attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day, and, most recently, the earthquake in Haiti. But White House aides say Obama seems less fazed than nearly anyone around him. When the president and his advisers walked out of an hourlong meeting on Haiti in the Situation Room one evening recently and headed to more deliberations on healthcare and the economy, an aide said the velocity of events seemed very high, requiring nearly constant decision making under crisis conditions. Obama smiled but was stoical. "That's just how we do it," he said matter-of-factly. "That's how we roll."
But can his State of the Union address make much difference? A review of the history of such speeches doesn't give much cause for White House optimism. Overall, the most memorable presidential speeches have not been State of the Union addresses but talks that marked historic occasions such as the inauguration of a new president, as with John F. Kennedy in 1960, or the Battle of Gettysburg, which inspired Abraham Lincoln's famous address in 1863, or Ronald Reagan's speech in 1984 marking the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. "The State of the Union just happens every year, when there may not be much else happening," says Donatelli.
But, even though they were rare, there have been some consequential State of the Union moments. In 1823, James Monroe unveiled the Monroe Doctrine opposing European intervention in the Americas. In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt signaled a new era of American leadership when he declared his support for "four freedoms" around the world: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. In 1996, Bill Clinton used his State of the Union to pronounce that the "era of big government" was over, buying into a conservative view of Washington.
Yet the fact is that the State of the Union address has become a Washington ritual of pomp and circumstance, sound and sometimes fury, often signifying little or nothing of lasting consequence.
The Constitution requires that the president "shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." Interpreting this provision, George Washington gave the first State of the Union address on Jan. 8, 1790. It was only 1,089 words long and was delivered before both houses of Congress in New York, the nation's capital at the time. He gave a second address on the state of the nation the following year, establishing the precedent of presidents giving annual reports to Congress, in person.
John Adams adhered to Washington's approach, but Thomas Jefferson, the third president, criticized such an annual, personal address as a "speech from the throne." Rejecting the idea as too imperial, he submitted his messages to Congress in writing. Actually, Jefferson's decision was perhaps not as high-minded as he suggested. He was a poor speaker and may not have wanted to embarrass himself with a big public moment that could have opened him up to ridicule.
Between 1801 and 1913, presidents sent yearly reports to Congress in the form of written letters, which contained the president's analysis of the state of the nation and also his policy recommendations. Several of these written messages exceeded 25,000 words.
As the mass media grew in importance, President Woodrow Wilson in 1913 went back to giving messages in the House chamber before a joint session of Congress. He wanted attention for his policies and for what he considered his role as the nation's prime advocate for the people.
From 1913 to 1934, presidents adopted a hybrid approach and delivered their annual messages either orally or in writing. In 1923, expanding the public outreach, Calvin Coolidge became the first president to have his speech broadcast on the radio.
As a master communicator, Franklin Roosevelt kept to the oral tradition and began actually calling the annual message a State of the Union address. The name stuck. But, with his health declining, Roosevelt issued his final State of the Union in writing in 1945.
Broadening the public outreach even more, Harry Truman was the first president to give the address on television on Jan. 6, 1947. Lyndon Johnson, seeking the largest viewing audience, became the first president to give his State of the Union in the evening, in 1965. Richard Nixon, safely re-elected in November 1972, sent Congress a series of written messages in 1973. A defeated Jimmy Carter gave his final address in writing in 1981.
In 1982, Ronald Reagan, ever the showman, began asking guests to join the first lady in the gallery of the House chamber, and he would introduce them with great fanfare. This custom has persisted ever since. Often, the guests are people who have performed acts of heroism or public service, illustrate a theme the president wants to emphasize, or are popular in their own right and give the president added luster. Guests over the years have included civil rights icon Rosa Parks and baseball greats Sammy Sosa and Hank Aaron,whom Clinton invited, and Lenny Skutnick, who rescued a drowning person from the freezing Potomac River after a plane crashed in 1982 during a snowstorm and was invited by Reagan.
For many years, to ensure the continuity of government in case of a disaster, one cabinet member has stayed away from the speech by prearrangement, so that someone in the line of succession could take over the presidency if a catastrophe occurred. All other cabinet officials, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, senior White House staff, and high-ranking military officials are customarily in the chamber listening to the president deliver the speech.
Another custom has been the dueling reactions in the audience. The president's supporters in Congress will applaud and cheer at various lines, while his opponents will remain silent and sit on their hands, illustrating the intense polarization in Washington.
As for Obama, senior White House officials say that he likes the attention the nationally televised State of the Union provides and that he has ultimate confidence in his eloquence and ability to inspire. He has met repeatedly with key staff members, including senior adviser David Axelrod and chief speechwriter Jon Favreau, to discuss themes. But Obama doesn't leave the actual writing to his aides nearly as much as his predecessors did. As a bestselling author, he believes that he is a better wordsmith than nearly anyone on his staff.
Yet this time, the problems of the country and his own political and public-relations woes might be too severe for one speech, however impressive, to make much difference.
- See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.