Many presidents don’t have the problem of salvaging their second terms because the voters threw them out of office. Among those who win reelection, the successful communicators, such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, used many of the techniques that President Barack Obama deployed in his State of the Union Address last night. He is likely to repeat them often this year, which is one that will determine whether his administration is remembered as transformational or transitional.
Giving Americans credit: While most recent presidents began their State of the Union addresses by rattling off positive economic statistics, Obama did it differently. Using archetypal anecdotes — a dedicated teacher, a high-tech entrepreneur, a night-shift worker – Obama gave regular Americans credit for reducing unemployment, adding manufacturing jobs and increasing high school graduation rates. In so doing, Obama emulated Reagan, who declared in his second State of the Union address of his second term: “Today, the American people deserve our thanks.”
By speaking for the American people instead of talking at them, Obama seeks to do what Reagan and Clinton accomplished: appeal to swing voters frustrated with political bickering.
Advocating action: Presenting himself as the leader of a united people rather than a divided government, Obama declared, “The question for everyone in this chamber, running through every decision we make this year, is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress.” With aides calling for “a year of action,” Obama echoed Clinton who said in his 1997 address that “the enemy of our time is inaction.”
Using this action-versus-inaction frame, Obama presented his increasing emphasis on executive orders as an exercise in pragmatism, not partisanship: “What I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require congressional action, and I’m happy to work with all of you. But America does not stand still, and neither will I.”