Don’t be fooled into thinking that the lawmakers seated before him are President Obama’s target audience at his State of the Union address on Tuesday evening. He understands political reality. This is an election year and the opposition party controls what will get through Congress in the next nine months.
If he were aiming his remarks primarily at members of Congress, the speech would likely be quickly dismissed as ineffectual and forgettable, placing it in the same category as the vast majority of these addresses throughout history. The reality is that they rarely matter. Of the 99 State of the Union addresses delivered by 19 presidents, only a handful are remembered by historians. (The presidents from Thomas Jefferson to William Howard Taft did not deliver speeches, instead only submitting written reports to Congress.)
Four stand out over the years, including three that were written – Abraham Lincoln in 1862, linking the cause of the union with the need to abolish slavery; James Monroe in 1823, declaring the policy that came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine; and George Washington in 1790, setting the precedent for the annual address. The most memorable oral address was given by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941. In it he outlined what he called “four essential human freedoms” – freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
It is not accidental that the speeches that worked best did not include long lists of legislative demands. Lincoln was reaching out to a war-weary nation and giving a rationale for the sacrifices being made; Monroe was sending a message overseas; Roosevelt was preparing a nation for war and making the case to assist European allies; Washington was talking to future presidents. None was relying on Congress to pass bills. They were using the State of the Union to lead.
Obama’s speechwriters, of course, are thinking less of history than of a tough reelection battle, sagging poll numbers, and proliferating attack ads. “He needs to try to set up the issue agenda that he’ll be talking about throughout the reelection campaign,” said Les Francis, who was deputy White House chief of staff for Jimmy Carter, who failed to do that in his 1980 address. By that time Francis had moved over to the campaign, but he painfully remembers Carter's speech because “it didn’t frame the year effectively.”
Chriss Winston, who was chief speechwriter for George H.W. Bush at the beginning of his administration, said Obama would make a mistake if he aims his remarks at Congress. “Congress is only one audience, and I would argue that the American people is the biggest and most important audience. What the speech ought to reflect is what your agenda as president will be for the coming year that addresses their concerns.”
Especially in an election year, the speech has to be considered “a political document,” Winston said. “You are really trying to connect with a wide variety of groups who judge the speech on different values. So that is, for starters, a problem. But it is always a political document -- and always more so in an election year.”
As they finish off the speech in the hours before the president enters the House chambers, Obama’s speechwriters can be guided by the lessons of the seven presidents who have given these addresses while seeking another term since the speech went to primetime in 1965. The successful presidents asked for big things, knowing full well they would not get them. George H.W. Bush in 1992 said he was speaking “of big things, of big changes, and the promises they hold.” Bush, whose political situation then is similar to what Obama faces today, confronted head-on the fact of the campaign, saying, “I know and you know that my plan is unveiled in a political season. I know and you know that everything I propose will be viewed by some in merely partisan terms. But I ask you to know what is in my heart. And my aim is to increase our Nation’s good. I’m doing what I think is right, and I am proposing what I know will help.”
Tuesday night, Obama is likely to make a similar appeal, casting himself as trying to transcend politics. His hope is that he will have more success -- and that his State of the Union address will have more impact – than the one-termer Bush had.