What to Watch: The State of the Union

Things to look and listen for during President Obama’s Tuesday night speech.

Barack Obama
January 11, 2016

By James Irwin

President Barack Obama will deliver his final State of the Union Tuesday night, and communications coming from the White House hint at some of the topics he might discuss.

In a trailer released Wednesday on Twitter by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, President Obama teased a few themes for the annual address, saying he wanted to focus on “not just the remarkable progress we’ve made, not just what I want to get done in the year ahead, but what we all need to do together in the years to come: The big things that will guarantee an even stronger, better, more prosperous America for our kids.”

That message, and information posted to the White House’s State of the Union page, indicate a speech that could blend past accomplishments with a robust 2016 agenda.

“My guess is that he will not treat it as a summing up, ‘legacy’ occasion but rather as a way to demonstrate to all of his audiences that he intends his last year in office to be an active and decisive one,” said Lee Huebner, the Airlie Professor of Media and Public Affairs.

President Obama, Dr. Huebner said, could use the State of the Union to make a strong case for his position on gun control. That’s likely, said Michael Cornfield, associate professor at the Graduate School of Political Management. He says the president’s Jan. 5 executive order that expands background checks for gun buyers and Jan. 7 town hall meeting on gun violence are telling signs leading up to Tuesday’s speech.

“We’re being encouraged to watch how far and how forcefully Obama pushes on guns,” Dr. Cornfield said. “That seems to be the issue they want to emphasize, and that is a really interesting choice by them.”

‘A bad issue for Democrats’

If the president chooses to push on gun ownership in the speech, it will be both a bold individual statement and a lousy political maneuver for Democrats, Dr. Cornfield said.

“I’m sure it must have been emotionally grueling to be comforting the families of all of the violence victims of the last seven years, so I can see why it would be personally gratifying for him to take this occasion to make a bold statement on guns,” Dr. Cornfield said. “But it also hurts the party. It’s a bad issue for Democrats.”

Calling for stricter gun-buying laws, he explained, arouses a counter reaction from gun rights’ activists, who are formidable and well represented. That reaction historically includes backlash from Republican leaders and the National Rifle Association and a spike in gun sales. The latter is a longstanding pattern, according to a Jan. 4 New York Times report.

The emphasis on guns can create down-ticket issues for the Democrats, Dr. Cornfield said. It happened last fall in Virginia when former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gun-control group spent $2.2 million in support of advertising campaigns for two state senate candidates.

“Virginia Democrats had a chance to win the state senate but there was a tremendous backlash against Bloomberg, who was seen as a carpetbagger,” Dr. Cornfield said. “Of the three contested state senate elections in Virginia, the Democrats lost two, and with it a chance to get control of the state senate.”

Foreign policy and economics

The economy and foreign policy could be a large part of Tuesday’s speech, Drs. Huebner and Cornfield said.

“I would emphasize [foreign policy],” Dr. Cornfield said. “If you had asked me a month ago, I would have thought [President Obama] would have emphasized foreign policy—and this may still prove to be the case. There’s a huge foreign policy agenda he can shape and presumably would do so in coordination with the Clinton campaign.”

New and old faces to watch

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) will deliver the Republican response to President Obama's address, in what The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips writes is a possible tryout for a vice presidential nomination. Meanwhile, Tuesday’s State of the Union will be the only one President Obama delivers with Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in the speaker’s chair. Rep. Ryan gave the Republican response in 2011.

Another change is the date of the speech. Tuesday’s address is the earliest on the calendar since Ronald Reagan’s final State of the Union in 1988. The earlier date is an attempt to hold the speech before the first primary elections dominate news coverage.

That’s an advantage for the president, Dr. Huebner said.

“This may be his last clear opportunity to focus attention on policy rather than politics,” he said.