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?”