Obama waves before his 2015 State of the Union speech last January.

Obama waves before his 2015 State of the Union speech last January. Pete Souza/White House file photo

How Obama Will Give His Final State of the Union

Past 8th-year presidents have left a blueprint.

As Pres­id­ent Obama pre­pares to de­liv­er his fi­nal State of the Uni­on ad­dress Tues­day, he can only hope for bet­ter treat­ment than the last two-term pres­id­ent re­ceived. The White House back in 2008 was less than thrilled when Pres­id­ent George W. Bush’s ap­pear­ance be­fore a joint ses­sion of Con­gress was over­shad­owed by an­oth­er event sched­uled by a rival politi­cian more skilled at com­mand­ing the me­dia spot­light. That trouble­maker’s name was Barack Obama.

He was can­did­ate Barack Obama then. And Jan. 28, 2008, was one of the most im­port­ant days of his cam­paign. Less than six miles away from Cap­it­ol Hill, then-Sen. Obama was don­ning the mantle of the Kennedy fam­ily at what news re­ports de­scribed as a “Beatlesesque” event at Amer­ic­an Uni­versity. There, Sen. Ed­ward M. Kennedy, in what the AU News Ser­vice called “part rock con­cert, part rally, part coron­a­tion,” of­fi­cially en­dorsed Obama over rival Sen. Hil­lary Clin­ton on live TV.  Six hours later, Pres­id­ent Bush took to the House rostrum. He had a big­ger audi­ence. But, The Wash­ing­ton Post con­cluded, he was “up­staged by the lar­ger and louder speech of the day” giv­en by Kennedy.

Eight years later, now-Pres­id­ent Obama will see if he’s still able to keep that spot­light or wheth­er it will be drawn away by the lar­ger and louder can­did­ates of the day who are fight­ing to win his job. For Obama’s up­sta­ging of Bush was not the first time an in­cum­bent pres­id­ent has been frus­trated try­ing to make the coun­try—and Con­gress—pay at­ten­tion to his last State of the Uni­on ad­dress. To the dis­may of those in­cum­bents, the re­ac­tion has of­ten been a na­tion­al shrug at a mes­sage tuned out as one they’ve heard be­fore.

Only five pres­id­ents have been in the po­s­i­tion that Obama will be in Tues­day—George Wash­ing­ton in 1796, Dwight Eis­en­hower in 1960, Ron­ald Re­agan in 1988, Bill Clin­ton in 2000, and George W. Bush in 2008. All oth­er two-ter­mers—who didn’t run for a third term as Frank­lin D. Roosevelt did in 1940—sub­mit­ted writ­ten re­ports to Con­gress rather than per­son­ally ad­dress­ing the law­makers. Eis­en­hower, Re­agan, Clin­ton, and Bush all en­vi­sioned the speech as Obama hopes to this time, as a means to battle the view that they were lame ducks with di­min­ish­ing in­flu­ence and wan­ing con­trol of the Wash­ing­ton agenda.

“Nobody wants a sev­en-year pres­id­ency,” said Clark Judge, one of the writers of Re­agan’s 1988 ad­dress. Ex­plain­ing his ap­proach to that speech to Na­tion­al Journ­al, Judge said Obama has to ac­know­ledge what Re­agan, Bush, and Clin­ton learned. “The pres­id­ent is strug­gling in the eighth year. No mat­ter who you are, you’re strug­gling.”

He ad­ded, “You are al­ways strug­gling with the ques­tion of how you keep mo­mentum.” The State of the Uni­on ad­dress can be im­port­ant to that fight. “You need to keep that fo­cus. And even if you can’t pass any­thing, you want to have es­tab­lished agenda items. If you have polit­ic­al skills and don’t think ‘it’s my way or the high­way’, you can have a very pro­duct­ive last year in of­fice. Re­agan cer­tainly did.” 

Steph­en Hess, who helped write Eis­en­hower’s 1960 speech, noted that all the post-FDR two-term pres­id­ents faced hos­tile Con­gresses in their last year in of­fice and un­der­stood that their chances for le­gis­lat­ive vic­tor­ies were slim. “We saw that speech as really a flight plan for the bur­eau­cracy,” he said.

This is a key point, said Lee H. Hamilton, the 17-term Demo­crat­ic con­gress­man from In­di­ana who is now dir­ect­or of the Cen­ter on Con­gress at In­di­ana Uni­versity. “There isn’t any doubt that the pres­id­ent’s use of the bully pul­pit di­min­ishes as he ap­proaches the end of his ten­ure. He doesn’t com­mand the at­ten­tion of the Amer­ic­an pub­lic that he did earli­er in his pres­id­ency. But he can­not be ig­nored and he still has all the power. He still has total con­trol of the ex­ec­ut­ive branch.”

Re­agan, Clin­ton, and Bush all used their fi­nal ad­dresses to force­fully re­mind every­one that they had a year to go. “My mes­sage to you to­night is put on your work shoes: We’re still on the job,” said Re­agan. Clin­ton warned against com­pla­cency. “We have un­fin­ished busi­ness be­fore us and the Amer­ic­an people ex­pect us to get it done,” de­clared Bush.

For all the two-ter­mers, though, there were ample re­mind­ers that oth­ers now were seen as the fu­ture. In 2008, Bush looked out at an audi­ence that in­cluded Sens. Hil­lary Clin­ton and Obama—as well as the scene-steal­ing Kennedy. (The even­tu­al GOP nom­in­ee that year, Sen. John Mc­Cain, did not at­tend.) Eis­en­hower had six Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates be­fore him and Vice Pres­id­ent Richard Nix­on be­hind him. Clin­ton had four Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates and Vice Pres­id­ent Al Gore present. Even George Wash­ing­ton had mul­tiple can­did­ates present among his cab­in­et, Con­gress, and the Su­preme Court.

The chal­lenge to shift pub­lic at­ten­tion away from the cam­paign and back onto the White House is daunt­ing. It is made no easi­er by the in­sist­ence of every pres­id­ent to take one last stab at agenda items pre­vi­ously denied in Con­gress. George Wash­ing­ton was the most be­loved and pop­u­lar pres­id­ent in his­tory. But he used his ad­dress to com­plain of Con­gress’s re­luct­ance to build a navy, open a mil­it­ary academy at West Point, and es­tab­lish a na­tion­al uni­versity.

Eis­en­hower made a staunch push for in­creased for­eign aid; Re­agan again de­man­ded a line-item veto and his Stra­tegic De­fense Ini­ti­at­ive; Clin­ton used al­most 10,000 words to lay out a long and fa­mil­i­ar agenda; Bush once more ap­pealed for im­mig­ra­tion and So­cial Se­cur­ity re­form. Re­agan, Clin­ton, and Bush all com­plained the Sen­ate was not con­firm­ing their ju­di­cial ap­point­ments, something cer­tain to be in Obama’s text Tues­day. And all three openly threatened ve­toes if Con­gress sent them le­gis­la­tion they viewed as ob­nox­ious. Again, ex­pect Obama to make a sim­il­ar threat.

An­oth­er real­ity for lame-duck pres­id­ents is that few­er people watch their fi­nal State of the Uni­on. Nielsen did not meas­ure audi­ences for Eis­en­hower or Re­agan, but doc­u­mented the de­cline for Clin­ton and Bush. Clin­ton went from 45.8 mil­lion in 1994 to 31.5 mil­lion in 2000. Bush had 51.8 mil­lion view­ers for his first in 2002 and only 37.5 mil­lion for his last in 2008. Clin­ton’s 31.5 mil­lion still stands as the smal­lest audi­ence, a re­cord al­most cer­tain to be broken Tues­day. Obama’s audi­ences have gone from 48 mil­lion in 2010 to just 32 mil­lion last year.

Obama will likely take an­oth­er page from the two-ter­mer play­book and make a pitch to his­tor­i­ans and ana­lysts start­ing to as­sess his leg­acy. Re­agan opened his ad­dress stat­ing that he would not of­fer “a proud re­cit­a­tion of the ac­com­plish­ments of my ad­min­is­tra­tion. I say let’s leave that to his­tory.” But he wasn’t tak­ing any chances and with­in minutes was of­fer­ing just that re­cit­a­tion.

That was not ac­ci­dent­al, said speech­writer Judge. “That was something we did all eight years,” he said. He called it an in­ten­tion­al ef­fort to keep the eco­nom­ic num­bers in front of the press. “There was an ef­fort to down­play our achieve­ments and by go­ing back to that over and over again, it made it harder to down­play them,” he said.

It also was part of the de­sire to force the can­did­ates to talk about Re­agan’s is­sues. “We were lay­ing out an agenda for the eighth year,” said Judge. “But also lay­ing out themes that we felt should drive the de­bate that year. I am sure that Pres­id­ent Obama will be try­ing to shape the up­com­ing elec­tion in his speech as well.”

The les­son of the pre­vi­ous two-ter­mers for Obama is clear, said Hamilton. “Full speed ahead, damn the tor­pedoes,” he said. “Go ahead and make your pitch to the Amer­ic­an pub­lic in what you be­lieve in, what you have learned, what you think the coun­try needs. Act as if you have all the power you ever had and push it as hard as you can. Don’t slack. Use the power you have.”

Obama, he ad­ded, “can­not be cowed by the fact that power is slip­ping away. He wants to go out with guns blaz­ing.”