When President Barack Obama takes the podium for his final State of the Union address Tuesday, he’ll no doubt adhere to what has become a key part of the long tradition: The grocery list of proposals that he wants Congress to pass.
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Like many presidents, Obama’s ability to move forward on his proposals has been defined in part by the makeup of Congress.
When Congress was controlled by Democrats, it was more likely to do his bidding. But with a Republican Congress reluctant to support his agenda, Obama has been chipping at the edges of those priorities through executive actions.
This year, his State of the Union may as well be a to-do list for him alone.
Local reaction to last year’s speech
The address, said Ron Bonjean, a Republican consultant who was formerly an aide to former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, “is basically his wish list. And most of it isn’t going to happen.”
“He’s letting everyone know that up until the very last minute — until the next president puts a hand on the Bible — he’s just going to keep getting stuff done,” said Boston-based Democratic consultant Mary Anne Marsh.
There once was a time when he could reliably ask Congress to move forward on his plans: In 2009 and 2010, Obama mentioned cracking down on Wall Street and passing health care laws. The Democratic Congress responded with the Dodd-Frank financial reform law and a sweeping health care reform bill that Republicans are still trying to undo.
But even then, some of those to-dos weren’t doable.
In some cases, he may as well cut and paste sections of previous years’ speeches. Obama has mentioned immigration reform every year except 2009, his first year in office. He has mentioned climate change — or at the very least, clean energy — every single year. He’s mentioned tax reform every year. And he’s urged the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay three times: in 2009, 2014 and 2015.
Some agenda items he managed to make partial progress on without Congress. He vowed to raise the minimum wage – and did so for federal employees through executive order. While Congress hasn’t passed climate change legislation, he has and is using the Environmental Protection Agency to toughen existing pollution standards. And he’s tweaked gun laws and immigration laws through executive action – both moves that have outraged congressional Republicans.
“I’m eager to work with all of you,” Obama told lawmakers during his 2014 speech. “But America does not stand still — and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Obama is certainly not the first president to see grand State of the Union proposals fail to make progress.
In 1974, President Richard Nixon vowed that the nation should become energy self-sufficient by 1980. That hasn’t happened.
In 1969, just before he left office, President Lyndon B. Johnson offered hope of a quick end to the conflict in Vietnam. “The prospects, I think, for peace are better today than at any time since North Vietnam began its invasion with its regular forces more than four years ago,” he said. The war dragged on for six more years.
And in 2008, President George W. Bush assured Americans that despite “uncertainty” in the economy that “in the long run, Americans can be confident about our economic growth.” Within a few months the housing bubble burst and the stock market collapsed, plunging the nation into a deep recession.
While the speech may reflect Obama’s priorities, John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the center-left Brookings Institution, questions whether it’s useful to use a national platform to highlight issues that have little chance of being addressed in a divided government. He wonders if focusing on the lightning-rod issues only inflames the other side.
“There’s a legitimate question to be asked — whether this is a productive use of that time and space and attention,” he said. “You can imagine an alternative scenario in which the president takes a step back and looks at what can get done. This president has not done that, and frankly, most presidents don’t.”
But Charlie Black, a Republican consultant who has served as a policy adviser for both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, said during the first President Bush years and the Reagan years, lawmakers would occasionally hear speeches that included goals that both sides wanted to meet.
“A president that has a Congress controlled by the other party should probably talk about things that might be doable, that they might compromise on and get things done,” he said, citing George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind bill as an example of a bill both sides wanted at the time. “Everything (Obama) does is kind of a campaign more than a doable objective.”
He said while the speech might normally be used to help Democrats in a presidential election year, Obama’s low job approval numbers and a weak economy won’t likely help the Democratic nominee, according to Black.
Hudak said presidents know what can or can’t get passed and may simply want to make an appeal to the American public.
“Sometimes they use a State of the Union to wag a finger at the opposing party, to wag their finger at Congress, to get an issue to have a higher profile,” he said.
That happened in 2004, when President George W. Bush called for team owners, union representatives, coaches and players to get rid of steroids in baseball. “It was jarring to hear the speech,” said Hudak, “But it ended up creating a broader conversation about the issue.”
This year, with a Republican-controlled Congress and all eyes on the 2016 election, Obama’s proposals will likely fall on even deafer ears than usual.
But that doesn’t mean he won’t try to get things done.
“He’s going to try to remain as active as possible given the congressional limitations,” said Matthew Dallek, an assistant professor of political management at George Washington University.
“What the president talks about can absolutely matter,” Dallek added. “Even in the eighth year of a two-term presidency.”