Pundits and the public are curious about what President Obama will discuss in his State of the Union address. Some predictions will likely be spot on, while others will be far off base. Rather than indulge in Obama prognostication, I am thinking about an alternative history where Mitt Romney is settled into his second term and is preparing to address a joint session of Congress. It naturally leads to two questions: What would President Romney do? And how is it different from what we are likely to see tonight?
First, a president’s economic policies are a big part of any State of the Union address. This is particularly true during times of economic distress. Thus, a Romney address one year into his second term would have been an opportunity for him to tout progress on his economic policy priorities and their impact on an improving economy. These priorities would have included: reform of the tax code and entitlement programs; restraints on federal discretionary spending; conversion of Medicare to a premium support model and reforms to ensure the long-term solvency of Social Security; the creation of free trade agreements with new partners in Asia and Europe; and efforts to open federal lands to energy exploration, as well as to give states greater authority to regulate the exploration of energy resources. Romney would also have used the opportunity to call on Congress to act on any part of his economic program that had not been enacted. Some of Romney’s success or failure on the economy — as in the case of all presidents — would have hinged on factors beyond his direct control, like the state of the global economy and the partisan composition of Congress.
Second, the need to deal with the pressing challenges of the day, whether domestically or abroad, means that presidents often end up addressing issues at the start of their second term that are “crowded out” of their first four years in office. But because they have had to burn so much of their political capital early on, they’re often left with very little by the time they get into their second term in office.
Romney had an ambitious first term agenda, particularly on jobs and the economy. But this likely would have left other priorities, like reforming our system of worker retraining, further expanding choice in K-12 education and fixing our broken immigration system, for a second term. In that sense, the issues addressed in Romney’s fifth or sixth State of the Union may not have been that different from those that we’ll hear about from President Obama on Tuesday. The biggest difference between Obama’s speech and the one a President Romney would have given would have been what they would have to say about the Affordable Care Act. Romney would have used executive authority to roll back portions of the law and promote state innovation in coverage and cost containment, beginning on day one of his presidency. How far he would have gotten would largely have been a function of what the courts would have permitted. President Obama, of course, will spend his time during the State of the Union arguing that the rollout of his signautre law hasn’t really been that bad and exhorting young people, in particular, to sign up for health insurance. The contrast between the two could not be starker.
Finally, presidents use the State of the Union to try and place global events in the context of a coherent (and, ideally, compelling) view of America’s role in the world. This year, for example, President Obama will likely argue that his administration’s emphasis on the diplomatic resolution of major conflicts was the key impetus for the nuclear deal that was struck with Iran in 2013.
It’s impossible to predict what global crises would have confronted Romney one year into a second term, but he almost certainly would have used the speech to re-emphasize his belief in American exceptionalism and the importance of a strong military. Romney was fond of saying that this century should be an “American Century,” and his State of the Union would have been an opportunity to deliver an update on the progress of his Administration toward that goal. Romney has always been a staunch believer in the importance of strong relationships with our allies, so he likely would have spent time discussing the state of our friendships with countries like Israel and the U.K.
Perhaps, then, it’s fair to say that when it comes to State of the Union addresses, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Intrigue and drama won’t be a feature of Barack Obama’s address on Tuesday; and the same could have been said if Mitt Romney were delivering the same address one year into his second term in office.
Editor’s Note: A different version of this piece appeared on Bloomberg Opinion on January 27, 2014.