President Obama will concentrate his State of the Union speech Tuesday on the economy, shifting the emphasis away from the broad social agenda of his second inaugural address to refocus attention on a set of problems that vexed his first term.
Several senior administration officials involved in the speech say he will use his fourth State of the Union address to talk about jobs after the national unemployment rate ticked up last month. He will propose ways to make college more affordable to more people. And, the officials said, he will argue for the need to spend public money — on research, on roads, on education — to prepare Americans for a world where a warming climate, a nomadic labor force and new technology are shutting doors and opening new ones across the national economy.
“Our single biggest remaining challenge is to get our economy in a place where the middle class is feeling less squeezed, where incomes sustain families,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the address based on drafts, marked up with highlighters, that were circulating among senior staff members late last week.
“This project is not complete, by any means,” the official added.
With Obama’s popularity up in recent polls, he made the back-to-basics approach clear last week in a meeting with House Democrats, whose inconsistent support will need firming up if his full domestic agenda has any hope of succeeding.
He told lawmakers at a Thursday policy retreat in Virginia that his second-term priority “starts with an economy that works for everybody,” adding that “our economy succeeds and our economy grows when everybody is getting a fair shot.”
“That is a growth agenda — not just an equity agenda, not just a fairness agenda,” Obama said, adding that on Tuesday “I’m going to be talking about job creation right here in the United States of America.”
A president’s first State of the Union speech following reelection has historically been his most ambitious — other than, perhaps, his first. Since it follows an inaugural address, it also gives a president a rare pair of opportunities, just weeks apart, to present the essence of a second-term program.
Many, though, have proved forgettable — more prose than poetry, and more ambition than practicality in actually presenting achievable goals. This may be one of Obama’s last meaningful formal addresses on his domestic agenda, given that a second-term president’s political power at home tends to ebb sharply after midterm elections.
Most first-of-the-second-term State of the Unions also share an essential frame of reference, one that emphasizes first-term successes and the unfinished agenda ahead. As President Ronald Reagan noted in his 1985 address, which followed a first term defined by a slow economic recovery: “We have begun well. But it’s only a beginning.”
Beyond that basic frame, however, post-reelection State of the Union speeches vary based on whether a president wants to signal a grand ambition — as Reagan did on tax policy in 1985 and George W. Bush did two decades later in pledging Social Security changes — or a litany of policies such as those that defined Bill Clinton’s long-winded 1997 address.
ONE SPEECH, TWO PARTS
White House officials view Obama’s back-to-back speeches as essentially one — a thematic prologue, delivered on Inauguration Day, followed by a prescriptive second chapter detailing the president’s view of the country’s economy.
Obama’s approach, as described by several senior administration officials, will flip the emphasis of his second inaugural address.
In that speech, Obama argued stridently for social equality through an expansion of gay rights, citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and the moral imperative of reducing gun violence and confronting climate change. White House officials acknowledge that he may have overshadowed his underlying message of economic fairness as a result.
On Tuesday evening, Obama will mention issues such as gun control, immigration and climate change primarily in an economic context: job opportunities in ¬clean-energy technology, the fair-play benefits of a legal labor force, and safe schools as a way to drive economic growth.
“If the second inaugural outlined what the president believes is the charge for America over the course of his second term, then this address will be a return to middle-class economics and what the president believes must be done on that front,” said a second senior administration official, who like the first discussed the speech only on the condition of anonymity.
Obama’s return to an overtly economic message is supported in part by polls.
Since his reelection, Obama has sought to move quickly on immigration legislation, hoping the Republicans’ poor showing last year among the fast-growing Latino electorate will provide urgent incentive to act before the midterm congressional races.
In addition, Obama has elevated gun control to a top domestic priority after the December shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 children and six adults.