- President looks to shape legacy more than push legislation
- Last chance on center stage before 2016 campaign dominates
President Barack Obama goes before Congress Tuesday night to shape history more than legislation.
The optimistic portrait of progress and possibility aides say Obama will deliver in his last State of the Union address lifts the curtain on a final year in office in which he will try to extend the influence of his presidency by securing the election of a Democratic successor.
Just as important for Obama is defining his two terms in the Oval Office in a way that inspires lasting allegiance to the Democratic Party.
Obama will reflect on seven years of unbroken economic success climbing out of the 2008-09 Great Recession. But for some, including many of Obama’s strongest supporters in the black community, recovery has been elusive, In addition, global terrorism arriving in the West -- from Paris to San Bernardino, California -- will make it hard for Obama to put a wholly upbeat spin on what has become a nervous time for many Americans.
The contrast Obama will draw, between a nation on the brink of economic calamity in 2009 to one of robust jobs growth and what many consider full employment, is intended to provide a purposeful, pointed contrast to the dystopian narrative of a crumbling, embattled America portrayed in the 2016 Republican nominating contest dominated by billionaire Donald Trump.
Obama is “very optimistic about this future,’’ Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” broadcast. “And that, by the way, is something that’s a little different than some of the doom and gloom that we hear from the Republican candidates out there every day.’’
Tuesday’s speech may be the president’s last chance before November’s presidential election to command the national stage with an extended address on his own terms. The 2016 campaign, kicking off with caucuses in Iowa Feb. 1, is about to dominate the national political conversation. And yet even as attention is drawn to the selection of his successor, Obama has made it clear he doesn’t intend to fade away.
Aides said he will use the moment to place the achievements of his administration in historical context, and speak in high-level, almost philosophical terms of a vision for the country stretching well beyond the next election. There won’t be much of a legislative agenda laid out for a Congress that’s under hostile Republican control.
“What he wants to do on Tuesday night is talk about the kind of country that he hopes will be present -- not just during the course of this year and this election year, but rather over the course of the next 20 years,” said McDonough.
While McDonough and other White House aides wouldn’t describe the specific themes of the speech, a central element is expected to be a review of Obama’s record.
The president can point to the surprisingly strong December employment report released on Jan. 8, which underscored the economy’s progress and took total job gains for the year to 2.65 million, following a 3.1 million rise in 2014. That was the best back-to-back yearly increase since 1998-1999. Employers were cutting jobs at a rate of almost 800,000 a month when Obama took office at the depths of the worst downturn since the 1930s.
The benchmark Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has more than doubled since Obama took office. And one of the post-speech trips Obama plans will be to Detroit, home of the U.S. auto industry, which in 2015 set a sales record of 17.5 million cars and light trucks. The administration pointed to those figures as vindication of a taxpayer-funded bailout of the three big U.S. automakers amid an industry collapse.
Obama also plans to visit Omaha, Nebraska, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to talk about the falling jobless rate and education. And Cabinet members will fan out across the country in the days following the speech for events focused on subjects ranging from health and safety to climate change.
Even so, the address comes at a time of turmoil in global financial markets driven by concern over China’s slowing growth, and renewed fears of terrorism among Americans following attacks by Islamic State-inspired Muslim extremists. A provocative nuclear test by North Korea just last week further unsettled the world.
Slow wage growth, particularly among workers without college degrees, is also fueling middle-class discontent and a populist wave propelling Trump and other anti-establishment candidates.
Obama’s record will set the political atmosphere for the presidential campaign. Whether or not Democrat Hillary Clinton fully embraces the Obama agenda, Republicans already foreshadow their general election strategy by tying her tightly to his administration.
As far back as the Democratic primary campaign in 2008, Obama expressed admiration for Republican Ronald Reagan’s achievement of a presidency marking a transformation in American politics that continued long after he left the White House.
Like Reagan, whose election heralded a movement of working-class white “Reagan Democrats” to the Republican Party and a long-term shift of the once solidly Democratic South, Obama’s two terms mark a political shift of potentially lasting consequence. The nation’s demography is changing as blacks, Hispanics and Asians grow as a share of the population and the electorate.
Reagan used his final State of the Union address, in 1988, as one of many occasions to connect his political principles to those of the nation’s founders and to Abraham Lincoln, and to define his record in office: “Our record is not just the longest peacetime expansion in history, but an economic and social revolution of hope based on work, incentives, growth and opportunity,” Reagan said.
The strength of any president’s political legacy is inevitably tied to popular perceptions of how the country fared during his time in office, and above all the performance of the economy, whether or not there is a clear connection with his policies, said H.W. Brands, a presidential historian and biographer of Reagan and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“Being president is as much as anything the figurehead of the United States, and therefore you’re the proxy for how the country is doing,” Brands said.
Even so, Tuesday’s speech may only play a minor role, if any, in defining Obama’s presidency. “I cannot think of a single State of the Union address at a comparable period of the presidency that anyone remembers for anything,” Brands said. For other presidents, “the eighth year State of the Union addresses have been pretty forgettable.”
The speech is likely to offer a glimpse of the role Obama hopes will play after he leaves office, said Vin Weber a former Republican congressman from Minnesota and an outside adviser to Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush. Weber expects Obama’s themes to “set up his own post-presidency.”
“He’s going to be involved in climate change, against gun violence,” Weber said. “I think we’re going to get other indications about the kinds of issues and causes he’s going to devote himself to.”