President Obama recently delivered his final annual State of the Union Address to the American people. This sample politics essay& will discuss this address in greater depth.
- History of the State of the Union
- Content of Obama’s recent address
- General tone of the address
- Republican reaction and response
- What Obama’s address may mean for his final year as president
The State of the Union Address
The tradition of the State of the Union address actually finds its basis within the Constitution of the United States itself. As Article II, Section 3, Clause 1 states (Office of the Historian): The president:
“shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient” (paragraph 3).
This was formalized into an event known as the Annual Address, which is what the speech was officially called from the years 1790 to 1946. A change began in 1942, however, when it first began being called the State of the Union address; this change in terminology was formally adopted in 1947, and the speech has been called that ever since.
The President’s annual report to Congress
The original idea of the address was for the president to essentially provide an in-depth report of executive affairs to the Congress, in much the same way that the CEO of a company may present information to shareholders. The tradition of the speech has evolved own over the years.
In particular, the State of the Union address has acquired important symbolic qualities as it evolved from being not just an administrative report but a much broader public statement made by the American president to the American people. This was surely facilitated by developments in technology: for example, the Office of the Historian has indicated that the first televised broadcast of the address occurred in 1947, and the first webcast of the address on the Internet occurred in 2002.
In general, the State of the Union address has morphed away from being a simple executive statement made by the president to the Congress into a more general public event in which the president addresses the American people as a whole. This has also come to mean that the State of the Union address has become a key platform from which the president can communicate his vision, objectives, and accomplishments to his constituents.
Content of Obama’s final address
The content of Obama’s final State of the Union address was clearly congruent with this historically emergent structure of the address in general. For example, near the beginning of the speech, Obama made a point of how strong the current economy of the United States really is, and those people who suggested otherwise were just making up stories:
“He listed a number of indicators of how strong the economic recovery he has overseen has been…When it comes to the job market, the Great Recession is a thing of the past” (Covert, paragraph 3).
This statement, along with several others made by Obama regarding the general strength and well-being of the nation, was clearly meant to quell the fears and anxieties of the American people, especially with the primary elections for presidential candidates coming up soon. He assured them that his final proposed budget would help reduce economic stress and echoed the growth America had experienced.
Calling for a unified nation in Obama’s farewell
One of the main themes that emerged within Obama’s address consisted of the ideological polarization that has so strongly affected both the American public and Congress itself over the course of the last several years. As Wallace-Wells has put it:
“The fascinating, unresolved question about polarization—in many ways it is the great question of this Presidential election—is whether the bitter atmosphere is an artifact of politics alone, or whether the country itself is more deeply split” (paragraph 5).
Obama addressed this subject at length with comments regarding the foundation of a democratic society itself, suggesting among other things that such a system of governance cannot function without a basic foundation of trust and good will even among people who may radically disagree with respect to visions of the best way forward for the nation.
This was directly meant to address the now-common trend of Americans thinking of their political rivals as motivated by malice and/or a hatred of the United States, as opposed to imagining those rivals to in the end want exactly what they themselves want: a stronger and more prosperous nation.
Using the State of the Union address to attach Congress
Obama was indirectly attacking the state of affairs within the contemporary Republican party. In particular, although he never mentioned specific names, it was clear enough that Obama took time to the State of the Union address to specifically criticize both the particular proposals and general attitudes of Republican candidates such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, who have virtually built their entire campaigns around xenophobia, fear, and distrust of Americans who disagree with their political opinions.
This itself may seem to be divisive in a way, although that is clearly not the way that Obama meant his remarks. His point was that the spirit of divisiveness is toxic for a democratic society, no matter where and how that spirit manifests; and it would simply seem to be the case that that spirit is at the present time strongest among the Republican contenders for the presidential nomination.
Tone of Obama’s final address
The White House had announced that Obama’s final State of the Union address would be different in tone from what Americans had come to expect from the speech, and commentators have generally suggested that Obama delivered on this promise. First of all, to make sense of this statement, it is worth turning to what Graham has said regarding the tone of the address:
“It was an unusual speech: Surprisingly devoted to rebutting Republican candidates for president, unusually loose and humorous, and elsewhere strikingly cerebral, passing up the tear-jerking climaxes of past addresses for a wonky and cerebral—though no less heartfelt—plea for civics and a better politics” (paragraph 1).
The tone of Obama’s address can thus be said to have diverged from the standard tone in two divergent but complementary directions. On the one hand, Obama relinquished the formality that usually characterizes the speech; but on the other, he also actually took the State of the Union address back to its roots as an actual executive summary, and not just some kind of propaganda tool.
Republican reaction and response to Obama’s final State of the Union address
The primary Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union address was provided by Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina. Interestingly, Haley seemed to be largely sympathetic to Obama’s basic message regarding the problem of divisiveness in contemporary American politics. for example, Haley (Sohrabji) stated:
“we need to be honest with each other, and ourselves: While Democrats in Washington bear much responsibility for the problems facing America today, they do not bear it alone. There is more than enough blame to go around” (paragraph 2).
Haley, then, while disagreeing with Obama’s specific statements regarding the state of the nation, still acknowledged his basic call for democratic civility. Moreover, as an Indian American herself, Haley spoke out against the xenophobia, and in particular the hatred of immigrants and Muslims, that seems to have found a strong voice within the contemporary race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Ironically, however, the moderation of Haley’s response to Obama’s speech may have alienated her from at least some parts of the Republican base itself. For example, Rappeport has indicated that Tea Party sympathizers had a strongly negative reaction to Haley’s suggestion that it is important for Republicans to become more rational and control their anger:
“At the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Convention that concluded on Monday, conservatives were excited to hear about Republican presidential candidates such as Donald J. Trump, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Huckabee. But the mention of Ms. Haley has had a tendency to sour moods” (paragraph 2).
This would seem to suggest that President Obama was quite right in pinpointing the Republican candidates for criticism on the grounds that they are invested in spreading the spirit of divisiveness within the nation.
Something that was notably absent from Obama’s final State of the Union address consisted of concrete proposals of what he would try to do over the course of his last year as President of the United States. In essence, this is likely because he has already done everything that is in his power to accomplish on his own authority alone, and he is unlikely to pass any more groundbreaking initiatives in the face of a hostile and deadlocked Congress.
One can expect, then, that the last year of Obama’s tenure will be characterized by the President attempting to consolidating his achievements from the past several years and resisting challenges that would seek to undermine those achievements, whether this pertains to healthcare reform, immigration policy, or foreign affairs. The lack of further solid proposals in Obama’s speech suggests a belief on his part that he has accomplished his mission to the greatest extent possible.
Covert, Bryce. “When the State of the Union Is Strong, but Doesn’t Feel Like It Is.” New York Times. 13 Jan. 2016. Web. 20 Jan. 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/13/opinion/when-the-state-of-the-union-is-strong-but-doesnt-feel-like-it-is.html.
Graham, David A. “A Strikingly Different State of the Union Address.” The Atlantic. 12 Jan. 2016. Web. 20 Jan. 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/01/state-of-the-union/423861/.
Office of the Historian. “State of the Union Address.” Author, 2016. Web. 20 Jan. 2016. http://history.house.gov/Institution/SOTU/State-of-the-Union/.
Rappeport, Alan. “Nikki Haley’s State of the Union Response Sours Tea Party Voters’ Mood.” New York Times. 20 Jan. 2016. Web. 20 Jan. 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2016/01/19/nikki-haleys-state-of-the-union-response-soured-tea-party-voters-mood/.
Sohrabji, Sunita. “Nikki Haley Defends Muslims, Immigrants in State of the Union Response.” India Times. 20 Jan. 2016. Web. 20 Jan. 2016. http://www.indiawest.com/news/global_indian/nikki-haley-defends-muslims-immigrants-in-state-of-the-union/article_2e2857ae-b9b2-11e5-a237-d7a7023d02db.html.
United States. “Article II.” Constitution of the United State. Avalon Project, 2016. Web. 20 Jan. 2016. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/art2.asp.
Wallace-Wells, Benjamin. “A State of the Union for the Age of Polarization.” New Yorker. 13 Jan. 2016. Web. 20 Jan. 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/a-state-of-the-union-for-the-age-of-polarization.