President Obama’s final State of the Union address will serve two purposes: highlighting his achievements and discussing what the future of America should look like. Each is important to the president in terms of his legacy. Each is just as important for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The president’s—and Democrats’—record during the past seven years will be a central part of the political discussion over the next year. On some issues, in some states, and with some voters, that discussion will help Democrats.
The president has numerous successes to point to in a variety of areas: the economy and jobs, the financial sector, healthcare, education, trade, and the environment. To prod Americans to evaluate his presidency and legacy, the president will tacitly ask voters if they are better off than they were in 2008.
In that way, his speech will sound less like a formal address to a Joint Session of Congress. Instead, it will sound more like his 2012 stump speech, reeling off victories, reminding Americans how their lives have improved, and painting Republicans as roadblocks to even greater progress. All voters and especially the nearly 66 million who voted to reelect the president will likely think back to their 2012 vote and ask themselves if they are satisfied or regret it. That calculus—that retrospective—will matter more to the Democratic nominee than it does to Obama himself. The president has an opportunity and duty to help inform that calculus.
The State of the Union will also provide an important signal. It will show us not just what accomplishments the president is most proud of, but what he thinks the Democratic nominee should most forcefully tout on the campaign trail. In some sense, the speech will serve as a lecture from the president-as-professor to his students: the Democratic presidential field and Democrats across the nation running in down-ticket races.
In reality, there are few meaningful takeaways from any given State of the Union address—no matter how hard journalists, pundits, and spin doctors like to say otherwise. Yet, tomorrow’s speech may have an important one if the president’s words change the rhetoric in the Democratic primary. It will be interesting to see if the “successes” discussed in the State of the Union become a more prominent part of Clinton’s and Sanders’ stump speeches. Sunday night’s Democratic debate in Charleston may also show the president’s early influence on the race.
The 2016 race may also influence the president’s speech. The president wants his successor to be a Democrat, and he knows he can help or hinder those chances. As such, this speech will likely also connect to major themes in the Democratic primary. It will not just be important that the president discusses inequality, racial justice, gun safety, women’s issues, security, the environment, and access to education. He will connect them to both his legacy and paint the parties as having stark contrasts on each. He will highlight a clear choice in 2016 and use Clinton’s and Sanders’ pet issues to do it.
Another item to look for is in tomorrow night’s speech is whether the president subtly signals support for a candidate. It is unlikely he would take a path that explicitly helps Bernie Sanders and hurts his former Secretary of State. But you can imagine two ways in which he can connect his record to the Democratic primary discussion. First, he can appear truly uncommitted and simply discuss all of the major themes of the campaign—boosting Democrats but not any individual Democrat. Second, he could show an interest in Hillary Clinton succeeding him. That path would involve him focusing on issues like security, foreign policy, women’s issues, and gun control. Those issues are ones that Clinton performs quite well on and/or outperforms Sanders. That distinction may not show up in the speech, but if it does it will be quite meaningful.
The State of the Union address will be the president’s first move in what will be a busy year for him on the campaign trail. Unlike House and Senate contests in 2014 and prior where many candidates preferred the president not appear, Obama will likely be a force in the 2016 presidential race. He will show up in many Republican attack ads, and he will barnstorm blue states and Democratic areas of swing states telling people to stick with the party. The president is a talented orator, gifted fundraiser, and excellent campaigner. In many ways, the weaknesses he has shown in office exist despite the talents he showed in his path to get there. Tomorrow night’s speech may be the first chance the president has to use those talents to pick his successor.