Looking presidential: Reaction to the 2015 State of the Union

Before the State of the Union tonight, there were the usual questions about why the tradition continues. The trappings of the 20th century State of the Union do seem oddly stiff and formal, and like a lot of ceremony surrounding a speech with declining policy significance. But as much as presidents promise (and often bring about) change, the presidency is also an office of preservation and continuity. The State of the Union, although not a particularly old tradition in its current form, allows contemporary presidents to preserve a bit of what it means to “look presidential.” He gets to talk about national values and priorities, draw on favorite historical figures, and tell the compelling stories of sympathetic ordinary citizens. The underlying partisan tension keeps things exciting, with the clapping and the standing and the stony faces. It’s an event that embodies some of the biggest tensions in the presidency – balancing national and party leadership, and moving forward with policy while connecting with the traditions of the past. And it’s a formal oration, interrupted only by applause, that exemplifies the dignity and power of the office that have long been fraught, but especially recently. (Check out Matt Glassman and Jonathan Bernstein on this topic.)

As I’ve written before, the need for modern presidents to adapt to changing forms of communication technology and changing social norms about communication has led to further tradeoffs and questions about what it means to “look presidential.” For the Obama presidency, this has been especially charged. Naturally, this is about race and party polarization – and the relationship between the two. It’s also about an era in which communications norms are increasingly informal and in which the immediacy of various formats shapes what we share and how we connect. Throughout his presidency, Obama has dealt with these competing pressures – received norms about the office, and contemporary opportunities to reach new voters in new ways. This tension was all over tonight’s speech, which was released online in advance and an “enhanced” address with “graphs and charts popping up in real time” could be viewed on whitehouse.gov. More importantly, the tone throughout reflected Obama’s sometimes irreverent humor. Talking about infrastructure, he said, “Democrats and Republicans used to agree on this.” And perhaps the line of the night: cheers erupted after he said, “I have no more campaigns to run,” and the president responded, “Because I won both of them.” A few other modern presidents – Nixon and Carter – sought at different points to move away from the orally delivered SotU (in Carter’s case, after he’d lost reelection; for Nixon, a series of policy addresses in 1973 instead of one single speech – more info here). Obama has kept the form, but also continued to challenge what it means to look and sound presidential.

Presidents often face “second term blues” – especially in the final two years. Obama seemed to have a clear idea for dealing with this – by returning to the basic political concepts that he used when he first came on the national scene. There were a lot of themes in this speech, but the one that stood out most to me was the circling back to the ideas of 2008, 2009, and even 2004, when Obama gave the DNC keynote. He started the speech with a story about a family hit hard by the 2008 recession, one of several reminders of the circumstances at the end of the Bush years. The end of the speech alluded to his “one America” theme from the 2004 keynote, but the logic of the message had shifted.

In 2004, Obama said, “We worship an “awesome God” in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”

In 2015, he noted, “we may have different takes on events in Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift.”

And: “Yes, passions still fly on immigration, but surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student, and agree that no one benefits when a hardworking mom is taken from her child…”

The message eleven years ago was that our polarized politics masked a more complex and nuanced social reality. The message tonight was that while the country may be closely and consistently divided, our values start to look the same when stripped to a very simple core. That there must be some values we agree on, even when we disagree about so many central policy questions.

Maybe this resonated with some people, but by after several rounds, I found it jarring- a reminder of all the emotionally charged questions of the past six years, and an insistence that we might be in agreement after all. Perhaps Obama and his speechwriters saw this an effective way to paint the Republicans as extreme and obstructionist – and maybe this is sound strategy.

The speech itself was never likely to be very persuasive or to change anyone’s mind. But memorable rhetoric provides the polity with a powerful framework for understanding an issue – “government is the problem,” “axis of evil,” “ask not what you can do for your country.” I don’t know that we got any such lines tonight, but even at this late hour in his presidency, Obama is still working to shift the debate onto his terms.

The end of the speech included a reference to John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address in 1961: “let us begin.” Obama’s themes might have been change and renewal, but this was unmistakably a speech from a president late into his second term. The forty-fourth president is confronting the fact that his presidency has not only changed policy, but also changed politics, and not entirely in ways he would have chosen. He’s laying the groundwork for his legacy and his successor. And he’s made ambitious proposals that have no chance of being passed, because that’s how second terms tend to go, especially during contentious divided government.

It doesn’t get much more presidential than that.

[Cross-posted at The Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.