WASHINGTON – As President Barack Obama prepares to deliver his annual address to Congress, many goals he outlined in previous State of the Union speeches remain unfulfilled. From reforming immigration laws to meeting monthly with congressional leaders of both parties, the promises fell victim to congressional opposition or faded in face of other priorities as the unruly realities of governing set in.
Now, as Obama’s first term marches to an end amid bitterly divided government and an intense campaign by Republicans to take his job in November’s presidential election, it’s going to be even harder for him to get things done. So Tuesday night’s speech may focus as much on making an overarching case for his presidency — and for a second four-year term — as on the kind of initiatives that sometimes characterize State of the Union appeals.
For Obama, like presidents before him, the State of the Union is an opportunity like no other to state his case on a grand stage, before both houses of Congress and a prime-time television audience.
But some of the key promises he has made from that stage — including the speech Obama gave to a joint session of Congress a month after his inauguration — have remained unmet, notably the one for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“State of the Union addresses are kind of like the foam rubber rocks they used on Star Trek — they look solid but aren’t,” said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “Presidents will talk about solving some policy problem, and then the bold language of the State of the Union address disappears into the messy reality of governing.”
For Obama, last year’s State of the Union offers a case study in that dynamic. Speaking to a newly divided government not long after the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Obama pleaded for national unity, a grand goal that never came to pass as Washington quickly dissolved into one partisan dispute after another.
Among the initiatives Obama promoted then that have yet to come to fruition a year later: eliminating subsidies to oil companies; rewriting immigration laws; and reforming the tax system.
The list of what he succeeded in accomplishing is considerably shorter, including securing congressional approval of a South Korea free trade deal and establishing a website to show taxpayers where their tax dollars go.
White House press secretary Jay Carney argued Monday that the unfinished business from last year’s speech didn’t represent a failure.
“I think that any State of the Union address which lays out an agenda has to be ambitious, and if you got through a year and you achieved everything on your list then you probably didn’t aim high enough,” Carney said.
One of Obama’s pledges from last January’s speech — to undertake a reorganization of the federal government — he got around to rolling out only this month. And other promises are vaguer or more long term, such as calling for renewed commitments to research and development and clean energy technology; pushing to prepare more educators to teach science, technology and math; promoting high-speed rail and accessible broadband; and seeking greater investments in infrastructure.
“Clearly as time goes on and a presidency matures … the State of the Union becomes an aspiration for what you want to do as opposed to a road map for what you can accomplish,” said Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer. As voters’ enthusiasm fades and opposition deepens, Zelizer said, “You lose some of your power and you get closer to the next election and no one wants to work with you.”
Last year’s address already contained more modest goals than the speech Obama gave to a joint session of Congress a month after his inauguration, which although not technically a State of the Union report had the feel of one. At the time Obama called for overhauling health care and ending the war in Iraq — promises he kept — but also for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and imposing caps on carbon pollution — promises unmet.