President Barack Obama will deliver his final State of the Union address Tuesday, and he’ll face a very different political landscape than when he gave his first address seven years ago.
In 2009, he addressed a majority Democrat Congress and focused on the economy. This time, the GOP controls both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and the hottest issue on the table is gun control. Add that to the looming presidential election and you may see the Democratic president stray from the “laundry list” of ideas typical of the annual address to a reflection of how much things have progressed, says Michael Waldman, former director of speech writing for President Bill Clinton, also a Democrat.
“And in a lot of respect the country has been doing much better than it has in years but people are very unhappy,” said Waldman, President of NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice. “And I’m sure from his perspective as a party leader, he wants to focus people a bit on “‘Hey, let’s get a grip folks. Things are going well, and we’re strong and we’re moving in the right direction.'”
Waldman told MetroFocus Host Jack Ford about what to expect in Obama’s final address and gave some insight to how the speech is coming together.
This year’s speech is scheduled earlier than usual.
Waldman says traditionally, the State of the Union is held later in the month but this year that would’ve coincided with some important developments in the presidential election.
“He did it because if he waited a few weeks, it would be in the middle of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary,” he said. “And he wanted to have his say before the spotlights swung firmly elsewhere.”
Obama is hands-on when it comes to the writing.
To draft a State of the Union speech takes months and involves numerous consultations with dozens of cabinet secretaries, aides and staff members. Obama is engaged throughout the process, said Waldman, who wrote more than 2,000 speeches for Clinton, including four State of the Union addresses.
“I know that President Obama also is very involved in the writing of the speech. He writes much more on a laptop, in terms of actually writing, than Bill Clinton did, who would dictate,” he said.
You’ll probably hear a lot about prison reform.
Waldman said there are a few “opportunities for real bipartisan legislation.” One of those is reforming America’s prison system.
Previously, criminal justice reform was a “bitter, wedge issue politically,” Waldman said. “But right now, there’s a recognition in both parties that mass incarceration is a problem. We have five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population, and you don’t need to do that to keep the streets safe.”
Crime in New York City, and many other regions around the country, has been on the decline since the 1990s.
“People recognize that crime is so much lower than it was a generation ago that there is in fact an opportunity to do this kind of thing,” he said.
The speech could have some sway in the 2016 race (but maybe not as much as a certain real estate mogul).
Waldman says the president and his upcoming State of the Union speech could have some impact on the presidential contest.
“I think that part of it is the public mood, part of it is the reaction that he often is able to get from Republicans, who often in my view will overreact to whatever it is he says, and part of it is in the Democratic party, where it’s pretty clear that Hillary Clinton is making herself — or trying to make herself — more of his “legatee” than Bernie Sanders,” he said. “And the more Obama supporters remember why they like president Obama and the more she can tie herself to him, ironically enough the better it is for her.”
But, he quickly pointed out that others will have a greater impact on the race than the Commander in Chief.
“I think a president can have some impact but not as much as whatever Donald Trump says that day,” he said.