Obama’s State of the Union Address Offers Chance to Set the Tone for Second Term

Obama’s State of the Union Address Offers Chance to Set the Tone for Second Term

“He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” – Article II, Section 3, United States Constitution 

David Greenberg

David Greenberg, associate professor of history and journalism and media studies

The Monroe Doctrine, the Four Freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear), the War on Poverty and the War on Terror were all first enunciated in presidential State of the Union speeches. George Washington delivered his first such speech to Congress in 1790; Thomas Jefferson ended the practice of delivering the message personally, and it was only revived by Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Franklin Roosevelt – he of the Four Freedoms – was the first to call the speech the State of the Union in 1934. All such speeches can be significant, even historic, but the first State of the Union after a president’s reelection offers him a chance to set out in detail how he wants to govern during his second term.

Rutgers Today asked presidential historian David Greenberg, associate professor of history and journalism and media studies, to put President Barack Obama’s upcoming State of the Union speech in perspective. 

Rutgers Today: How important is the State of the Union address to a president starting a second term? 

David Greenberg: The State of the Union is always important for setting a tone and an agenda. Bu

Washington State of the Union

President George Washington's hand-written message to Congress, delivered in person in 1790.

t history is filled with forgotten State-of-the-Union speeches whose agendas went unpursued. This year, President Obama gave an unusually  policy-heavy Inaugural Address, and so it’s likely he will not unveil much new next week but rather flesh out those proposals. 

Rutgers Today: What is President Obama’s most important task as he prepares his speech? 

Greenberg: Obama has always been bedeviled by the tension between his natural instincts, which are to preach harmony and conciliation, and the lessons of his first term, which suggest that progress will only come from taking a strong, combative and even partisan stance. In his first term, he clung too much to the feel-good rhetoric that launched him to fame in 2004 and that thrilled the pundits in 2008. Lately, he’s been more assertive on behalf of a liberal agenda. The challenge in the State of the Union will be to continue to pursue an agenda while still persuading some opinion-leaders, especially in the center and on the right, that he is open to working with the opposition to meet his goals.   

Rutgers Today: Second presidential terms are often difficult. Can you think of a second term that went well, that might serve as a model for President Obama? What was it about that president that made his second term a success? 

Greenberg: Bill Clinton’s second term was extremely successful. Although the Lewinsky/Ken Starr business was an unfortunate distraction as far as public and press attention was concerned, Clinton did loads under the radar. (I wrote about this in a The New Republic article, “The Myth of Second-Term Failure.” He helped the economy and the environment; reduced the deficit, poverty and crime; increased student college aid; and much else. He also had a very successful second term in foreign policy. The point is that presidential achievements need not occur in the legislative arena. The Nation had a list of 20 ideas. Obama can use a second term to push a progressive agenda. NPR did a story on what Obama can do unilaterally on the environment. So I would urge him to look at how second term presidents, including Bill Clinton, worked both with and without Congress to achieve their goals. 

Media Contact: Ken Branson
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E-mail: kbranson@ur.rutgers.edu