David Coates

Waiting for the State of the Union Address


SOTU addresses at the start of a second presidential term are relatively rare phenomena, and in recent times they have also been also relatively ephemeral ones. George W. Bush used his SOTU Address in 2005 to make a prolonged pitch for the partial privatization of Social Security.[1] That pitch went nowhere. Bill Clinton used his to launch a national crusade for education – his “A Call to Action for American Education”;[2] but listening to him, among others, was Monica Lewinsky. Ronald Reagan spoke of “lightening government’s claims on our total economy” by reducing the federal deficit; but his legacy didn’t quite work out that way.[3] So the precedents for an important and lasting speech next Tuesday are not good.

But maybe things will be different this time because of the widespread understanding that this SOTU Address was foreshadowed in President Obama’s policy-heavy second inaugural address[4] on January 21st. This is clearly meant by the Administration to be a SOTU that cashes in on the scale and character of the general election result last November, and so launches a more effective second term than was the first. Second-term presidents know how to deliver SOTU addresses. This is always their fifth:[5] which makes a quick re-examination of the previous four a worthwhile exercise as we wait for the next. So what pointers can we find in the SOTU addresses from the first Obama term that might prepare us for the SOTU Address to come?

On the domestic agenda, this much perhaps at least.

We can expect what by now has become the standard Obama specification of the long-term economic problem facing the United States: namely an over-dependence on imported oil, an education system failing too many of our students, a corporate sector too prone to outsource much of its basic production, and a growing gap between the quality of American infrastructure and basic research and the quality of infrastructure and research in the best of our competitors. We can in consequence expect the President to call for policy that, as in 2009, will “not only revive the economy, but build a new foundation for lasting prosperity.”[6] At the heart of that policy for the President, if past SOTUs are any guide, will be proposals designed to generate large numbers of good paying jobs by strengthening U.S.-based manufacturing; proposals recognizing the key role of innovation and basic research (normally linked to clean energy and energy independence) in the achievement of that strengthening; proposals geared to rapidly improving and modernizing America’s increasingly outmoded infrastructure;[7] and innovations in education policy[8] geared to creating the skill sets American businesses need to win greater market share in an increasingly interconnected global economy.

Maybe we will hear again about ending tax breaks for companies that export jobs overseas. We certainly need to. We may hear again the standard paean (as in 2011) to further trade deals “that keep faith with American workers and promote American jobs.”[9] Trade deals which, since they tend not to keep that faith, arguably we don’t need. We may even hear more, as we did in 2009, of “the need to address the crushing cost of health care” and “the growing costs in Medicare and Social Security” – both initiatives offered as part of a long-term strategy to avoid leaving our children with “mountains of debt.” Some discussion of debt reduction is presumably unavoidable in contemporary SOTU addresses. What we need to hear – and what we may not hear – is a defense of spending now and cutting later.

We are also likely this time to see the return to center-stage of issues and policy proposals that were marginalized in earlier Obama SOTU addresses. Climate change was not mentioned in three of the last four addresses. Immigration reform was treated to just two lines in 2010,[10] and framed then as an issue of border security. In 2011 and 2012,[11] immigration reform had more coverage, though in 2011 it was tied exclusively to the passing of the DREAM Act.[12] Civil Rights – particularly the rights of gay and lesbian Americans – surfaced only briefly in one SOTU (2010) and then only as a call “to repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love.” And let us hope that we get the 2009 version of the importance of government spending in a recession, and not the 2011 version. The first noted the capacity of government to “catalyze private enterprise” by creating “the conditions for thousands of entrepreneurs and new businesses to adapt and to thrive.” The second likened family budgets to government budgets: “Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same.” We certainly don’t need a SOTU that throws out the Keynesian baby with the debt-ceiling bathwater.

Ideally, however, it is the silences in the last four SOTU addresses that will begin to be filled in next Tuesday night. The biggest of these silences – the greatest domestic failure of this would-be progressive President – has been on the issue of poverty and the need for anti-poverty programs. There was not a single word about the scale of contemporary American poverty in any of the President’s first four SOTUs. Hard-working and financially-pressed families were regularly mentioned – but of the plight of the one in seven Americans living in poverty, there is yet to be a single mention. And where too, thus far at least, has been the recognition of the need for new rights for working women? Here we are, twenty years after the passing of the Family and Medical Leave Act, still bringing up the rear on issues as basic as paid maternity leave or rights to flexible work hours. Where too has been the active celebration by a Democratic President of trade unions as key deliverers of the stronger wages and greater job security vital to the realization of the American Dream? You can find that celebration in an occasional stump speech, but never yet in a SOTU.[13] And where, in any of the previous Obama SOTUs, has there been a set of proposals on how to ease the burden of home foreclosures that has been anywhere commensurate to the task? There is always a mention of foreclosures in an Obama SOTU, but never more than a pinprick of a policy response.

Yet these addresses are meant to be about the state of the whole union, not just about the state of the union for the privileged within the beltway. The state of the union for those losing their homes, for those struggling to balance paid work and child-rearing, for those making ends meet on inadequate pay, and for those finding themselves locked in to cycles of poverty and deprivation – the state of the union for those Americans (maybe one American in two when all those groups are added together) – deserves the Congress’s full attention and priority. The Congress’s full attention: and the nation’s. It hasn’t had that focus and priority thus far, and that needs to change.

Maybe it will this time. The tone of recent SOTU Addresses has grown more populist and more self-confident. The Joint Address to Congress was all crisis-focused in 2009, and understandably so; it was a speech overridingly concerned with clearing up the immediate mess – with what the incoming President called “a trillion dollar deficit, a financial crisis and a costly recession.” By 2010 and 2011 the underlying focus of each SOTU was on Washington gridlock, with the solution understood as a return to genuine bipartisanship The President spoke in 2011 of “the numbing weight of our politics” and of “the stalemate between left and right,” a stalemate he characterized in 2012 as “a fiasco.” But by 2012 the tone was sharper. The call for fairness was stronger.[14] The enthusiasm for bipartisanship at any price was decidedly less, and the defense of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid was far more robust than it had been in 2009 and 2010. The content of the Second Inaugural continued that more progressive trend; and it is one we need to see deepened and consolidated next Tuesday.

For what President Obama said in the 2010 SOTU remains true today. “We can’t afford another so-called economic “expansion” like the one from the last decade – what some call the “lost decade” – when jobs grew more slowly than during any prior expansion; where the income of the average American household declined while the cost of health care and tuition reached record highs; where prosperity was built on a housing bubble and financial speculation.” Which is why next Tuesday we need a State of the Union Address that begins with the things so far left out of Obama’s previous SOTUs. Tuesday’s Address needs to start with, at a minimum, a call for policy to alleviate poverty and to strengthen worker rights. Tuesday’s Address then needs to go on to the immediately pressing issues of the day – gun control, immigration reform and climate change – before applying the principle of fairness to his by now standard call for American economic renewal. We need the President to tell the American people that the state of the union is not good for far too many Americans in 2013 because, for too long and across the economy as a whole, fairness has been absent from the structure of decision-making and rewards. We need him to make unambiguously clear that the way forward to generalized prosperity in America has to be a way forward built on sharing. The way forward needs to be built on the sharing of power between employers and employed. It needs to be built on the sharing of income between those who own, those who work, and those whose access to paid work is impaired; and it needs to be built  on the sharing of the tax burden between those who earn so much and those who earn so little. We need a SOTU address, that is, unlike any other. The President broke new ground with his second inaugural address. We need new ground to be broken again on Tuesday.



[2] The full text is at http://clinton2.nara.gov/WH/SOU97/


[5] Technically, the first Obama SOTU (February 24, 2009) was a Joint Address to Congress.


[7] “Our infrastructure used to be the best, but of late it has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our engineers graded our nation’s infrastructure, they gave us a “D.” We have to do better. America is a nation that built the transcontinental railroad, brought electricity to rural communities, constructed the Interstate Highway System. The jobs created by these projects didn’t just come laying down tracks or pavement. They came from businesses that opened near a town’s new train station or the new off-ramp. So in the last two years, we’ve begun rebuilding for the 21st century, a project that has meant thousands of good jobs for the hard-hit construction industry. Tonight, I’m proposing that we redouble all those efforts. We’ll put more Americans to work repairing crumbling roads and bridges. We’ll make sure this is fully paid for, attract private investment, and pick projects based on what’s best for the economy, not politicians. Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail.” (SOTU, 2011)


[8] “Right now, three quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma. And yet, just over half of our citizens have that level of education. We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation. And half of the students who begin college never finish. This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow. That is why it will be the goal of this administration to ensure that every child has access to a complete and competitive education – from the day they are born to the day they begin a career.” (SOTU, 2009)


[12] The 2012 SOTU was better, and included this. “Let’s also remember that thousands of talented, hard-working students in this country face another challenge: the fact that they are not yet American citizens. Many were brought here as small children, are American through and through, yet they live every day with the threat of deportation. Others came more recently, to study business and science and engineering, but as soon as they get a degree, we send them home to invent new products and create new jobs somewhere else. That doesn’t make sense. I believe as strongly as ever that we should take on illegal immigration. That’s why my administration has put more boots on the border than ever before. That’s why there are fewer illegal crossings than when I took office. The opponents of action are out of excuses. We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now.”


[13] On this, see the editorial, “More Jobs, Higher Pay,” The New York Times, February 5, 2013: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/05/opinion/more-jobs-higher-pay-in-obamas-second-term.html?_r=0


[14] “Let’s never forget: millions of Americans who work hard and play by the rules every day deserve a government and a financial system that do the same. It’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom: no bailouts, no handouts, and no copouts. An America built to last insists on responsibility from everybody.’ (SOTU, 2012)

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David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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