With his second to last State of the Union, President Obama will be slinging a Hail Mary toward the end zone.
Sadly, no one will be there to receive it.
The biggest proposals that he will present to Congress and the country will be non-starters with the newly minted Republican Congress whose support Obama will need to pass legislation.
“Proposing a tax hike to a Republican House and Senate is a non-starter,” Mary Kate Cary, who wrote speeches for President George H.W. Bush, told The Daily Beast. “There are so many other proposals [Obama] could have started with instead—what a wasted opportunity to reach across the aisle and secure a better legacy for himself.”
For the president, there aren’t many options left. It’s late in the fourth quarter. The short game is not an option. It’s legacy time and the second-to-last-opportunity where he’s guaranteed the country’s attention.
“If the president is in that kind of position where he’s dealing with an opposing party in Congress, there’s often a wish list, pie in the sky element to [the State of the Union],” said David Greenberg, who teaches history at Rutgers University.
Jeff Shesol, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, defended the ambitiousness of Obama’s proposals—arguing that they should be seen as ideal positions rather than achievable goals.
“You never see a president standing before the Congress with just consensus proposals, all of which are pretty likely to get passed,” Shesol told The Daily Beast. “They are in most instances going to reach beyond that… It’s not his job to be just passively waiting in the Oval Office for Congress to pass bills.”
The president will be proposing unlikely reforms for two reasons: to solidify his legacy and to help in negotiations, say historians and former White House speechwriters.
And, of course, there’s always the next election.
“A Republican refusal to consider taxing the 1 percent and the things they say in the process can be used against them in future elections. He can try to influence a direction for his party and, simultaneously, define an advocacy role for himself in the years ahead,” said Wayne Fields, author of a book on presidential speechwriting, Union of Words: A History of Presidential Eloquence.
And in previous State of the Union addresses, argued Greenberg, President Obama has laid out points of potential compromise—only to find the negotiating window shifting to the right when Republicans made stronger demands.
“Obama has made the mistake a lot over his initial years by opening with a compromise bid, and Republicans would counter with their maximum bid,” he said. “Obama may have finally figured out that it’s better to open with your maximum bid.”
The president is also expected to lay out a few issues where Republicans could reasonably be expected to work with him: cybersecurity, trade agreements, and an authorization for the use of military force in Syria and Iraq. But that’s probably where the compromise begins and ends in the waning years of the Obama administration. Republicans are skeptical when it comes to potential cooperation on the bigger matters, such as tax reform, however.
Sen. John Thune, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, said there was “great interest” among Republicans for substantive tax reform. But, he told reporters at the Republican congressional retreat last week, he hasn’t seen meaningful efforts from the White House to engage. Thune contrasted the current toxic climate with when he was a Capitol Hill staffer in the 1980s, describing President Ronald Reagan’s White House working with key congressional leaders, sending back and forth different proposals.
“The White House and the president have expressed interest, rhetorically... but when push comes to shove, really engaging with the Congress, we haven’t seen that,” Thune said.
Cary, the former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, said that Clinton’s second-to-last SOTU focused on big issues where parties could find common ground: the federal budget surplus, welfare reform—even solving the Y2K problem. George W. Bush’s penultimate SOTU was much the same way, she said: a plug for immigration reform and weaning the country off its dependence on foreign oil.
Traditionally, memorable State of the Union speeches have tended to be nearer to the end of each president’s tenure.
Some have become memorable in hindsight, Ellen Fitzpatrick, a scholar specializing in American history said. She points to President Monroe’s 1823 State of the Union address, which outlined what came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine foreign policy. And FDR’s 1941 address, the first of his third term, laid out the argument for the Lend-Lease policy that Congress would soon approve.
“In the context of the kind of divided government we have today, big proposals requiring Congressional cooperation may ring hollow,” Fitzpatrick said. “But it doesn’t mean the speech itself is devoid of meaning or significance.”