By Russell Berman Jan 20 2015
More than the traditional laundry list of proposals, it’s the president’s tone toward Republicans that will be key.
In the weeks leading up to his penultimate State of the Union address, President Obama and his advisers have taken the unusual step of revealing just about all of his major proposals in advance of the speech. They have offered an unprecedentedly detailed portrait of what the president plans to say on Tuesday night. What matters now is how he says it.
The theme of the speech will be « middle-class economics, » and the centerpiece is a tax cut for working families that would be paid for with higher taxes on investments and inheritances for the wealthy. Obama will tout his plan to make the first two years of community college free for up to 9 million students, as well as his call for increased paid sick leave for employees. And he’ll surely promote a proposal to boost cyber-security for consumers by increasing enforcement capabilities and requiring companies to reveal data breaches within 30 days.
If this all sounds like one gigantic spoiler, blame the White House. Rather than use the State of the Union as a « big reveal » moment for new presidential policy proposals, Obama is inverting the process. In addition to announcing landmark changes to immigration and Cuba policy late last year, the president has spent the past two weeks publicizing other key pieces of his agenda. Obama has joked to audiences that with just two years left in office, he’s « kind of in a rush » to get his ideas out there. But the idea of the preview tour, as Politico reported last week, stems from the belief inside the White House that the century-old tradition of the formal State of the Union speech is outdated in 2015 and that Obama could generate more attention for his proposals by parceling them out piece by piece.
With so much of his agenda known, why bother watching Obama’s address at all? For starters, the tone of his speech will offer the best clue yet as to how he’ll approach the new Republican majority in Congress. The president will be addressing a House chamber populated with more GOP lawmakers than at any time in decades, a reality that should lower the applause meter (and maybe make the speech move a little quicker?). Obama’s populist tax plan, swiftly rejected by Republican leaders, suggests the president will be combative—there will be no repeats of Bill Clinton’s famous 1996 concession that « the era of big government is over. » And his decision to issue a series of veto threats just days into the new Congress irked Republicans. But there are a few areas in which Republican leaders—themselves eager to demonstrate their effectiveness to voters—genuinely believe they can make progress with Obama.
The first is trade, a rare issue that links the president and top Republicans against opposition from the Democratic base. If Obama renews his call for Congress to give him authority to fast track the negotiation of trade deals, he’ll receive a warm ovation from most Republicans, who want him to work harder to build support among Democrats wary of free trade. « The president has to lean into some of the things he says he supports, » House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters at the GOP retreat in Pennsylvania last week. Republicans point to cyber-security and infrastructure as other areas with the potential for bipartisan action.