Lame-duck State of the Union speeches are, as the folks on Madison Avenue would put it, an exercise in remarketing: You’re trying to make customers feel good about the product they’ve already bought, so good they may invest in an upgrade.
For President Obama, marketing his policies has never been a strong suit. Obamacare, Dodd Frank, the stimulus: all of his biggest initiatives were defined and then demogogued by the opposition.
“The only part of [Obama’s] legacy that I would change is if I were he I would’ve heralded it in a stronger way so that the American people have a better understanding of all that this president has done,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told me in a December interview.
And, so, Obama’s task on Tuesday night will be to sell his tenure to the American people—a majority of whom haven't approved of the job he's been doing since June 2013, the last time his approval rating hit 50 percent in daily Gallup polls. And he needs to sell it well enough that Americans will consider giving another Democrat four years this November.
"President Obama will mention his successes since 2009 especially bringing the economy back from the brink—10 percent to 5 percent unemployment, decreasing the rise in health costs and expanding health insurance coverage and access to quality health coverage for Americans,” says Professor James Thurber, director of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.
On domestic policy, Obama will make a strong case that under his stewardship, the economy has pulled itself back from the brink of depression in the global financial crisis. He’ll likely talk about reducing the deficit by 70 percent and more than doubling the stock market to 16,000 from less than 7,000, though the market has taken a beating thanks to Chinese instability in recent weeks. And he’ll talk about saving the American auto industry and helping bring about 70 straight months of job growth.
But, confidence in the economy still remains weak—and not just the consumer kind. In his final State of the Union, George W. Bush made the case for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as “often measured by the things that did not happen,” such as further terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. To some degree, Obama’s must similarly prove a negative: the stimulus worked because the downturn could’ve been so much worse without it.
And Americans, still suffering from wage stagnation, are about as inclined to believe Obama’s economic successes as they were Bush’s national security ones.
“Most Americans are convinced the economy is still in the tank,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “No question, the recession's effects linger in some ways, and wage growth has been awful. But hard unemployment has been cut in half, GDP is decent, and other key measures have turned up. Few seem to recognize it. Obama can stress the good news without ignoring the bad. His legacy depends on it. If Americans are still sour on the economy next fall, [the likely Democratic nominee Hillary] Clinton will have a hard time winning.”
Finally, on the domestic front, Obama will seek to redefine Obamacare as a success: a program that has given health care insurance to an estimated 22 million people. Obama hasn’t had much success selling his signature health care law to Congress—remember Rep. Joe Wilson yelling, “You lie!” at Obama during another address at a joint session?—or, for that matter, the American people. As of November, only 44 percent of Americans approved of the law, compared to 52 percent who disapproved, according to Gallup.
In terms of new proposals, Obama will challenge Congress to do more on guns—the subject of executive orders he released last week. He has said repeatedly that he wants to do more to make Americans safer from gun violence in his last year, lambasting a Congress unable to pass even the smallest gun safety reforms such as two bipartisan bills that remained stalled, one to close a loop hole on background backs that led to the Charleston church shooting and another to ban the sale of guns to those on the FBI’s no-fly list.
Obama is also likely to address foreign policy, an area he'll be focusing on during his last year in office with trips to Germany, China, Peru and Japan, among other countries.
President James Monroe took the occasion of his final State of the Union address to lay out a doctrine that 27 years later (it took a while to settle in), became known as the Monroe Doctrine and a defining principal of U.S. foreign policy: We’ll let your current colonies stand, Europe, but no more meddling in the Americas.
Obama has no Obama doctrine—save the unfortunately phrased “leading from behind”—and this is his last chance to fix that, and some of his muddled foreign policy positions. While most of his recent foreign policy speeches make the case for a minimalist approach in meddling in others affairs, particularly when it comes to troops on the group, Obama’s realpolitik is a lot more muscular—think, drones, covert ops, bombing Syria and Iraq.
“Since when he first ran for president, he promised to avoid stupid wars but fight necessary ones to protect the country,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution. “He only became a dove in his reelection bid and thereafter, to my mind. So, I'll be curious if Tuesday is a continuation of the somewhat hackneyed recent Obama [statements], or a more thoughtful attempt to integrate all his different elements of thinking on American power, and even admit that he got one or two things wrong from time to time.”
Big speeches are something Obama has tended to excel at, although he’s never had a memorable State of the Union.
In the years under his tenure, the country has gone the opposite direction from the red states and the blue states Obama eschewed for “one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America,” in his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that vaulted him into the national eye. This is one of the last big platforms of Obama’s presidency to achieve that goal—really, to make a difference.
But by the seventh year, Presidents are also tired, and odds are better for a toned-down speech with small expectations, leading—like all lame ducks—from behind. For all Obama now must do now is sell himself enough for voters to want to see four more years of Democratic.
Let the remarketing begin.