Does the State of the Union Ever Change Anything?

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WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 27: U.S. President Barack Obama sits at his desk in the Oval Office January 27, 2014 at the White House in Washington, DC. Obama will deliver his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol on the night of January 28.
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
Jan. 27, 2014, 4:34 p.m.

When he de­liv­ers his fifth State of the Uni­on ad­dress Tues­day night, Pres­id­ent Obama will have to de­cide if his audi­ence is the diehard Demo­crats watch­ing on tele­vi­sion or the hun­dreds of mem­bers of the House and Sen­ate who will be sit­ting in front of him. At stake is the fate of the big le­gis­lat­ive items he will tick off in his speech.

Obama has already learned the les­son taught by earli­er pres­id­ents: As grand as any State of the Uni­on is, as com­mand­ing as he may be, as loud as he can make his voice, pres­id­ents rarely are able to set the le­gis­lat­ive agenda in this an­nu­al event.

Only a hand­ful of times in the last half-cen­tury have pres­id­ents been able to im­pose their will on Con­gress.

One of those in­stances was en­joyed by Obama. In 2010, he used his State of the Uni­on ad­dress to de­mand ac­tion on health care re­form, eco­nom­ic re­cov­ery, and fin­an­cial re­form. It wasn’t pretty and it cer­tainly wasn’t easy, but those were the items Con­gress dealt with in the months after his speech.

When he de­livered that speech, his party con­trolled both houses of Con­gress and the coun­try still felt it­self in crisis and was de­mand­ing ac­tion in Wash­ing­ton. Both the pub­lic and the Con­gress were will­ing to be led. In con­trast, Con­gress paid little heed to what the pres­id­ent said in his speeches in 2011, 2012, and 2013. For Obama, the mo­ment had passed.

Now, with his poll num­bers sag­ging and a di­vided Con­gress much more res­ist­ant to lead­er­ship, Obama hopes to re­gain the mo­mentum and rees­tab­lish him­self as le­gis­lat­or-in-chief with his 2014 ad­dress. But the cir­cum­stances that al­lowed him to pre­vail in 2010 — and which al­lowed earli­er pres­id­ents to suc­ceed — are miss­ing as he takes to the po­di­um.

The pres­id­ents who have been best at set­ting the con­gres­sion­al agenda in the past 60 years have been Lyn­don B. John­son in 1964, George W. Bush in 2002, Dwight Eis­en­hower in 1956, Ron­ald Re­agan in 1985 and 1986, Richard Nix­on in 1970, and Bill Clin­ton in 1997.

In terms of lead­ing Con­gress, every oth­er mod­ern pres­id­ent is meas­ured against John­son and every State of the Uni­on is meas­ured against 1964. “That is the most dra­mat­ic ex­ample,” said Wil­li­am Gal­ston, who was do­mest­ic-policy ad­viser to Clin­ton. “He laid it all out.”

In that speech, John­son rattled off one Great So­ci­ety pro­gram after an­oth­er, ur­ging his audi­ence to “let this ses­sion of Con­gress be known as the ses­sion which did more for civil rights than the last hun­dred ses­sions com­bined, which en­acted the most far-reach­ing tax cut of our time, as the ses­sion which de­clared all-out war on hu­man poverty and un­em­ploy­ment in these United States, as the ses­sion which fi­nally re­cog­nized the health needs of all our older cit­izens “¦ as the ses­sion which helped to build more homes, more schools, more lib­rar­ies, and more hos­pit­als than any single ses­sion of Con­gress in the his­tory of the Re­pub­lic.” And Con­gress re­spon­ded.

But, as Gal­ston poin­ted out, al­most all the pres­id­ents who suc­ceeded in prod­ding Con­gress to act were blessed with something Obama lacks today: a boom­ing eco­nomy. Cer­tainly, that was the case in 1964. “The eco­nomy was do­ing very well, and people were feel­ing com­fort­able and pros­per­ous. That’s when they tend to be gen­er­ous,” Gal­ston said. “Which is why try­ing to do something about in­equal­ity when the coun­try is in such a pinched and neg­at­ive mood about the eco­nomy is go­ing to be a tough sell.”

John­son him­self ex­per­i­enced that prob­lem, and his later State of the Uni­on mes­sages were less sweep­ing and ef­fect­ive be­cause of it. In 1964, he made only passing men­tion of Vi­et­nam. But the war — and its eco­nom­ic im­pact — came to dom­in­ate his later speeches, in­clud­ing his lament in 1966 that “be­cause of Vi­et­nam, we can­not do all that we should, or all that we would like to do.”

The oth­er factor present in the past but miss­ing today is the sense of crisis. “There are mo­ments in his­tory when [mem­bers of Con­gress] will agree that something is more im­port­ant than any­thing else,” said Steph­en Hess, who worked for both Eis­en­hower and Nix­on. When Bush ad­dressed Con­gress on Jan. 29, 2002, it was only four months after the dev­ast­at­ing at­tacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He was, in ef­fect, a war­time lead­er. When he laid out an agenda heavy on the war on ter­ror­ism, Con­gress sa­luted and fol­lowed his lead.

Re­agan did not have con­trol of Con­gress and did not have a na­tion­al emer­gency to ex­ploit. But he per­severed, us­ing suc­cess­ive State of the Uni­on ad­dresses to build sup­port for his agenda in much the way Eis­en­hower did in 1955 and 1956 to get Con­gress to con­struct the in­ter­state high­way sys­tem. For Re­agan, the pri­or­ity was com­pre­hens­ive tax re­form. And he pre­vailed through re­pe­ti­tion and sheer force of will.

Gal­ston says Obama’s best chance to set the agenda is to find areas where bi­par­tis­an con­sensus is pos­sible; “put­ting his im­prim­at­ur on these areas could help move them for­ward to the fin­ish line.” But, he said, a pres­id­ent can’t do that in a speech aimed at his party’s base.

An­oth­er way to pre­vail, par­tic­u­larly when your party does not con­trol Con­gress, is to pro­pose meas­ures already favored by the op­pos­i­tion. Nix­on did this in 1970 with an en­vir­on­ment­al agenda, in­clud­ing cre­ation of the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency. And Clin­ton did it in 1997 with wel­fare re­form.

There are, of course, more fail­ures than suc­cesses. Last year, Con­gress gen­er­ally ig­nored Obama’s en­treat­ies, none more so than his plea, “Let’s agree right here, right now, to keep the people’s gov­ern­ment open and pay our bills on time and al­ways up­hold the full faith and cred­it of the United States of Amer­ica.”

However, al­most without chal­lenge, the biggest fail­ure to set the con­gres­sion­al agenda was Nix­on’s in his 1974 speech. Ad­dress­ing what he called “the so-called Wa­ter­gate af­fair,” Nix­on said, “I be­lieve the time has come to bring that in­vest­ig­a­tion and the oth­er in­vest­ig­a­tions of this mat­ter to an end. One year of Wa­ter­gate is enough.” Six months later, on the brink of im­peach­ment, Nix­on was forced to resign the pres­id­ency.

Obama’s prob­lems are nowhere near that big, but he is fa­cing the ques­tion of how to re­sus­cit­ate his pres­id­ency. “He has to re­cog­nize that his pres­id­ency is re­garded as be­calmed right now,” Gal­ston said. “The ques­tion is, how can he set sail again? And how can he reen­er­gize a pres­id­ency that is re­garded as badly stalled?”

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