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January 24, 2012 4:50 PM Why tonight matters

By Steve Benen

President Obama will deliver his State of the Union address tonight and will reportedly unveil a new slogan: “win the future” is out; “built to last” is in.

One of the larger questions, of course, is whether the speech will matter. Can we expect Obama to get a bump in the polls? Probably not. The post-SOTU bounce is largely mythical. Can we expect Congress to take the president’s vision seriously as the basis for a legislative agenda for 2012? Put it this way: very little got done in 2011, and 2012 will almost certainly be worse.

So, why should anyone consider tonight’s speech to a joint session important? Jonathan Bernstein explains why: the SOTU is “usually a reliable guide to White House priorities for the next legislative year and even beyond.”

Students of elections and the presidency have learned that presidents tend to keep their promises, or at least try to, and one way to think about the State of the Union is as a series of promises. Perhaps the most famous one in recent years was George W. Bush’s introduction of the “axis of evil” in the 2002 State of the Union — and with it the fateful pivot from Afghanistan to Iraq. We’re not going to see anything as dramatic this year. But the normal construction of a State of the Union speech involves various outside interests and administration factions fighting to get their priorities mentioned (and as prominently as possible), because they know that it places the president on the path to fighting for those programs. Presidents even wind up searching out new initiatives because they don’t want reporters to conclude that there’s nothing new and that the White House is losing energy; that’s how the Bush administration, for example, wound up supporting a Moon/Mars program.

Even when there appears to be little hope of a cooperative Congress, the specific proposals that the president highlights often matter. Sometimes that’s because the president can move forward on those things without Congressional approval; sometimes it’s because once made, a State of the Union proposal tends to stick around. If Obama is re-elected some of the programs orphaned after this year’s speech may show up during his second term. And of course, proposals can be negative as well: a State of the Union veto threat is a lot less likely to be walked back than one that’s made in a less visible way.

The Monthly’s Paul Glastris made a similar point on NPR yesterday: “[R]emember, the State of the Union is the blueprint for the government for the next year or, in the case of a re-election year, for the next four years…. So these are marching orders to his government, marching orders to all the people that work for him, marching orders to Democrats throughout the country. ‘Here’s what we want to accomplish. Here are the things we want to do that cohere into a theme and a message. We’ve got a long-term goal here, and in a sense the government will be feeding off that State of the Union for ideas, for formulations for the rest of the year.’”

In other words, if you want to know what Obama’s prepared to fight for, look no further than what he has to say tonight.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

Comments

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  • chi res on January 24, 2012 4:57 PM:

    As one of those many people who's never won anything, I wasn't that wild about "win the future" anyway.

  • T2 on January 24, 2012 5:00 PM:

    The only think I'm interested in is which TeaParty GOPer will scream "Screw You" at the President while he's speaking.

  • slappy magoo on January 24, 2012 5:01 PM:

    Prediction for tonight - at least 10 GOP members of Congress will stage a "walk out" of the President's SOTU address, claiming that he's being hyperpartisan and they just can't work with "that man." And within 48 hours, instead of being reviled as anti-American pieces of crap, their reelection war chests will be bursting with a million + in new donations. Rush will label them "the new heroes" and Fox News will profile each and every one of them. Such is the state of affairs with the thugs in the Republican party, and the dupes who love them.

  • Danp on January 24, 2012 5:13 PM:

    C'mon Slappy, finish that thought. Then by next week they will be calling for civil discourse, claiming that Obama is only interested in dividing us and governing through fiat.

  • Anonymous on January 24, 2012 5:14 PM:

    ^The "new heroes", that's got a great ring to it. Marsha Blackburn will accuse the President of rape and Victoria Foxx will just be old and ugly..

    "End the future" also works in the Republican's favor.

  • chopin on January 24, 2012 5:18 PM:

    Built to last? Cool. Every Ford commercial just became a shout out to Obama.

  • SecularAnimist on January 24, 2012 5:24 PM:

    By all accounts, Obama will show that he's "willing to fight for" an America that is increasingly dependent on increasingly dirty fossil fuels, including shale gas extracted with hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. "fracking", as well as massively expanded coal mining and offshore oil drilling.

    That's not an America that's "built to last". It's more like the last throes of a dying civilization.

  • slappy magoo on January 24, 2012 5:27 PM:

    Danp, only some of them will be calling for civil discourse. Many more of them, seeing that there's no line they dare not cross, will be calling for a revolution. I think their game plan is going to wind up being a subtle promise to burn America to the ground if a Republican doesn't win, basically scaring America to vote for the GOP, not because they fear Obama, but they fear what the Republicans will do if he's re-elected. Sort of a "nice country you have here, it'd be a shame if anything were to happen to it" extortion racket kind of deal...

    And if they do reclaim the Presidency in '12, they'll claim it was a mandate from the masses to correct our nation's course.

  • Doug on January 24, 2012 6:49 PM:

    SecularAnimist, how DO you manage to get through the day? I don't know how to break this to you, but this whole "Eeyore" thing is really getting old.
    I mean, the sun came up and didn't immediately blast a hole in the ozone and fry all of us. That must have been a major bummer for you! Nor, apparently, has any of the food you've ingested contained salmonella. Unless you're typing this in from your bed of pain? You know, just to show where a mere life-threatening illness ranks in your scheme of things?
    With regards to "fracking", or any other form of providing fossil fuel derived energy, there's a small fact that may have escaped your notice: this country, whether you approve or not, IS highly dependent on fossil fuels and will remain so for the next several decades.
    Just to START moving away from our fossil-fuel dependency means tax laws affecting both home-owners and businesses will need to be changed, to provide credits for moving to clean energy and penalties for not doing so. Industries manufacturing solar panels and wind mills will have to be vastly expanded. The EPA has already issued rulings on air-born mercury contaminants, among others, that require either the closing of old coal powered power-plants or their being retro-fitted with scrubbers. All this is going to cost a lot of money and if not done properly, will create an anti-clean energy backlash as prices rise and jobs are lost with, seemingly, nothing to show for it. I'm assuming that's NOT what you wish to happen. I could be wrong.
    The best way I know of to slow or halt fracking and our reliance on fossil fuels is to increase our sources of clean energy. The best I know of to do THAT, is to re-elect the current occupant of the White House while providing sufficient majorities of Democrats in the House and Senate so that we can start trying to fix the many problems we face. Bonus: if we elect enough Democrats, a couple of "progressives" that even YOU might approve of may be elected.
    Doubt it'll change your posts, though...

  • rong44 on January 24, 2012 7:30 PM:

    Yeah, I'll bet he's all worn out fighting for high-speed rail.

  • flubber on January 24, 2012 7:34 PM:

    "Perhaps the most famous one in recent years was George W. Bush's introduction of the axis of evil in the 2002 State of the Union, and with it the fateful pivot from Afghanistan to Iraq."

    The word "fateful" in general usage has negative or ominous connotations. Which, since Bernstein writes from TNR, for fuck's sake, doesn't make sense in that sentence.

    How did that get past the editors there? Shouldn't it be, "the fortuitous pivot to Iraq"?

    There wasn't a more pro-war collection of "liberals" on the internet. If the war with Iraq had been somehow avoided, TNR would still be pimping and lying about the Threat from Iraq (and not just Iran, as currently).

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