As President Obama prepares to deliver his seventh annual address to Congress, a new notion is floating around politics: that the State of the Union is “dead.” “Obama killed it,” reported Politico. Hardly. Reports of its demise, to paraphrase Mark Twain, have been “greatly exaggerated.”
Start with the idea that “only” thirty million people will watch it. Well, yes. Except that Meet the Press gets a little under three million viewers on a good day. Many more people will watch President Obama than Kevin Spacey playing President Underwood. Many citizens will download the speech online, too. Sure, the days when you could walk down the street and hear FDR’s voice wafting out of every radio in every home are long gone. But in our multiplatform, 140-character-limit age, the president’s bully pulpit still towers over others. A large part of the public craves the chance to hear our leaders talk about policy at length.
Then there’s the supposed novelty of a president releasing policy ideas in the weeks before the speech. Obama calls them “spoilers.” Not a bad idea, but not a new one, either. As Rahm Emanuel joked when we worked for Bill Clinton on his 1999 address, “The State of the Union was once a speech. Now it’s a month.”
Isn’t Obama a lame duck? After all, this speech comes after Republicans won control of both chambers for the first time this presidency. Here’s a trivia question: When was the last time a President gave his seventh year State of the Union to a Congress that wasn’t controlled by the other party? Answer: Franklin Roosevelt in 1939. Every other two termer had lost control of Congress by the last lap of his presidency. They all faced a steeper political terrain than Obama does. Dwight Eisenhower faced Cold War setbacks. Ronald Reagan spoke in 1987 right after the Iran-Contra scandal broke, and he had to lead the speech with a discussion and apology. Bill Clinton was in the middle of his Senate impeachment trial in 1999. And George W. Bush spoke at a time when we were losing in Iraq. He faced withering controversy over the “surge” of troops, which proved a good policy, but made for a challenging speech environment. Some of them had productive last two years; some didn’t. But there is much room for a creative president and Congress to achieve things, even by fighting.
For President Obama, the new party balance offers some unexpected benefits. In recent years, Congress has been paralyzed, polarized, and entirely dysfunctional. Now conservatives control it, but at least it might actually pass legislation. Obama suddenly will be more central, more relevant than he has been in domestic politics over the past year. His veto pen will be all that stands between the Republican agenda and enactment. He can draw lines, pick fights, or choose cooperation. In so doing, too, he will have the ability to make broad public arguments in the context of a real debate—on the economy, on the role of government, on contentious long-term issues such as climate change.
How can the President use this diminished but still potent platform?
Begin with the much-mocked opening, when presidents all declare some version of “the State of the Union is strong.” Actually, that’s news. After last year’s jittery succession of crises, from Ebola to Ferguson, the public could use some reminding that things are actually getting better. Last year the economy created more jobs than it had since the 1990s. President Obama has been leery, probably too leery, of a triumphalist tone. But now overall growth and a tighter labor market have begun to bolster incomes, too. The United States has weathered the financial crash far better than Europe, for example. The President is entitled to crow.
Then there are the rare areas of possible bipartisan cooperation. Chief among them is criminal justice reform. The United States has five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prison population. A striking consensus has formed that too much is criminalized and too many Americans are in prison. The good news is bringing sanity to criminal laws does not put safety at risk. Incarceration and crime are both dropping at the same time for the first time in 40 years. The President can point to proposals from Republican senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee, and Democratic lawmakers Cory Booker and Dick Durbin. And he can pledge to shift the ways billions of federal dollars go to states and cities on autopilot. These funds could help incentivize innovative policing programs rather than more incarceration.
Finally, I hope the president will harken back to the most electrifying moment in any of his previous addresses. Five years ago, just days after the U.S. Supreme Court upended campaign finance laws in the Citizens United decision, Obama scorched the ruling. “Last week,” he thundered, “the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections.” Justice Samuel Alito mouthed “not true” from the front row. Who was right? Unquestionably, Obama. In key Senate races, for example, outside spending by big money groups doubled since 2010. Ken Vogel in Politico reported the top 100 donors to political committees in the 2014 election gave almost as much as 4.75 million small donors combined. And foreign firms? We don’t know—because so much new money is secret, so-called “dark money.” Of course, Sen. Mitch McConnell is Congress’ most ardent foe of campaign laws, and legislative change is unlikely in the short run. But the President should use this visible platform to defend democracy and expose how it has been undermined.
So, the State of the Union address ain’t what it used to be, but it remains a rare way for a president to put forward his agenda to the widest audience he will get all year. Let’s hope President Obama takes full advantage.
Michael Waldman is President of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. He was chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton.