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Should President Obama’s SOTU Mirror His Second Inaugural?

President Obama delivers inaugural speech

Former New York governor Mario Cuomo famously remarked that “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.”  His aphorism offers a concise summary of the relation between inaugural addresses and the State of the Union addresses that follow them.  Compare, for example, JFK’s soaring inaugural (“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you . . .) with his 1961 State of the Union, delivered just ten days later.  A sample sentence offers the flavor of the latter: “The overall deficit in our balance of payments increased by nearly $11 billion in the 3 years [1958-1960]—and the holders of dollars abroad converted them to gold in such a quantity as to cause a total outflow of nearly $5 billion of gold from our reserve.”  It is reasonable to expect that President Obama will execute a similar, if perhaps less abrupt, shift from the elevated poetry of his second inaugural to the more prosaic task of laying out a governing agenda for his second term.

For newly reelected presidents, the second inaugural is and must be different from the first.  The key shift is from “Let us begin” to “Let us continue.”  Recent second augural addresses have adopted the same broad triadic frame: We have come a long way during the past four years; in so doing, we have built a strong foundation for future progress; but to seize the future, we must now build on that foundation.

The question is how to best do that.  At this point, reelected presidents face a choice.  If they believe that the country faces challenges rather than crises, they offer what is often called a “laundry list” of policy initiatives.  Although speeches of this sort typically lack narrative coherence, they can reflect a president’s considered judgment as to what the situation requires (and permits).  In 1997, for example, Bill Clinton concluded that peace, growing prosperity, and the resolution of the fight over welfare reform meant that he could advocate a wide range of initiatives rather than focusing on a handful of urgent, high-profile issues.

The alternative, of course, is to use the SOTU as opportunity to focus the public and Congress on matters the president regards as key to his second term.  A classic example was Ronald Reagan, who used his 1985 State of the Union to continue the push for comprehensive tax reform by laying out in some detail the kind of the reform wanted.  Another, less successful, example came in 2005, when George W. Bush underscored his determination to make structural changes in the Social Security system.  This year, Barack Obama could choose to give comprehensive immigration reform—last achieved more than a quarter of a century ago – that degree of emphasis.

But should he?  Is that what our current situation requires?  I think not.  Here’s why.

Most commentators—rightly, in my view—see President Obama’s second inaugural address as a restatement of the liberal creed for our time.  Its moral and emotion heart lay in the linked themes of fairness and inclusion: the arresting alliteration of Seneca Falls, Seneca, and Stonewall neatly encapsulated the concerns of the coalition that brought Obama to power and sustained him through political peril.

Today’s liberalism differs from the liberalism of the New Deal era that dominated American politics from 1932 through 1968 and finally expired in Walter Mondale’s 1984 landslide loss to Ronald Reagan.  The older liberalism focused mainly on economic progress that would bring more and more working-class Americans in the middle class.  By contrast, today’s liberalism focuses on the concerns of the socially marginalized—along with those of upscale professionals for whom economic issues are not paramount  In that vein, Obama’s second inaugural address emphasized social issues—gay rights, immigration reform, and to a notable degree, climate change.  In the process, Obama gave relatively short shrift to economic growth, and he paired a call for “hard choices” to reduce the budget deficit with evident skepticism about most of the means to that end.

It is doubtful that this agenda would prove adequate, either substantively or in the court of public opinion.  A recent Pew survey of 21 possible policy priorities found immigration, guns, and climate change ranked 17th, 18th, and 21st, respectively on the public’s list.   Strengthening the economy came in first, followed by improving the job situation and reducing the budget deficit.     

It’s not hard to see why.  The new budget and economic projections the Congressional Budget Office just released show that on its current course, our economy will not regain its full potential output until 2017—nearly a decade after the Great Recession began, unemployment will remain above 6 percent well into 2016, and the horrendous rate of long-term unemployment will decline only slowly.  The American people will want to learn whether the president thinks this is the best we can do, and if not, how the thinks we can do better.

That same CBO report showed that if currently scheduled budget cuts (or their equivalent) go into effect and we do not endure another recession between now and 2023, we can just about hold our debt to GDP ratio steady at 77 percent—about twice what it was just a few years ago.  But CBO lists several reasons why all the fiscal surprises in the next decade are likely to worsen rather than improve this outlook.  The American people will want to learn whether the president regards this fiscal course as satisfactory, and if not, how he proposes to alter it. 

Obama has good reasons, then, to use his 2013 State of the Union to focus more on the economy than he did three weeks ago.  And he has another decision to make as well.  His second inaugural was widely regarded as a fighting speech—as a staunch, unyielding statement of his core beliefs and those of the coalition that sustained him in dark hours and reelected him last year.  But he does not control all the instruments of governance.  To move toward his objectives, he will need the cooperation of many Americans—and their elected representatives—who are not members of his coalition and who cannot be browbeaten into acquiescence.   If Obama’s 2013 State of the Union launches a real dialogue with his opposition, it could mark the beginning of a highly successful second term.      

  • William A. Galston holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, where he serves as a senior fellow. A former policy advisor to President Clinton and presidential candidates, Galston is an expert on domestic policy, political campaigns, and elections. His current research focuses on designing a new social contract and the implications of political polarization.

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