President Obama will stand before members of Congress and a national television audience tonight to deliver his sixth annual State of the Union address. It’s pretty safe to assume it will include the following:
Paeans to the American dream, from the particular vantage of the middle class. Support for energy independence, education and changes in immigration laws. A short nod to international affairs, the winding down of wars abroad and the continued pursuit of terrorists. A laundry list of desires that the president knows will probably never see the light of day, even if all sides genuflect to the everyday Americans arrayed in the House chamber as witnesses, a theatrical touch of guilt-mongering employed since the era of President Reagan.
Those conclusions can be drawn from Obama’s five previous State of the Union addresses, which paint his tenure in sharp relief much as it has happened — a dramatic reaction to the national economic meltdown, then years of frustration salved by a few striking victories.
Throughout his first term and into his second, Obama has remained consistent in his demands; but for a few hints of the year in which they were delivered — particularly in 2011, when he congratulated Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) on his recent appointment as House Speaker after the previous November’s Democratic swoon, and prayed with Congress for the recovery of one of its own, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who had recently been shot — several could have been switched with little discernable effect.
Here’s a look at his emphasis, year by year, as his presidency has progressed:
2009: A week earlier, Obama had signed one of the key successes of his first term, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the stimulus. Economic fears were rampant; the new president sought to instill confidence.
"I know that for many Americans watching right now, the state of our economy is a concern that rises above all others, and rightly so. If you haven't been personally affected by this recession, you probably know someone who has: a friend, a neighbor, a member of your family. You don't need to hear another list of statistics to know that our economy is in crisis, because you live it every day. It's the worry you wake up with and the source of sleepless nights. It's the job you thought you'd retire from but now have lost, the business you built your dreams upon that's now hanging by a thread, the college acceptance letter your child had to put back in the envelope. The impact of this recession is real, and it is everywhere.
"But while our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken, though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before…
"We are a nation that has seen promise amid peril and claimed opportunity from ordeal. Now we must be that nation again, and that is why, even as it cuts back on programs we don't need, the budget I submit will invest in the three areas that are absolutely critical to our economic future: energy, healthcare and education."
2010: One year in, Obama reasserted one of the arguments of his campaign, that with economic destruction so deep, recovery would not be instant. But his frustration with Washington was more evident.
"So I know the anxieties that are out there right now. They're not new. These struggles are the reason I ran for president. These struggles are what I've witnessed for years, in places like Elkhart, Ind.; Galesburg, Ill. I hear about them in the letters that I read each night. The toughest to read are those written by children asking why they have to move from their home, asking when their mom or dad will be able to go back to work.
"For these Americans and so many others, change has not come fast enough. Some are frustrated, some are angry. They don't understand why it seems like bad behavior on Wall Street is rewarded but hard work on Main Street isn't, or why Washington has been unable or unwilling to solve any of our problems. They're tired of the partisanship and the shouting and the pettiness. They know we can't afford it. Not now....
"I campaigned on the promise of change. 'Change we can believe in,' the slogan went. And right now I know there are many Americans who aren't sure if they still believe we can change or that I can deliver it. But remember this: I never suggested that change would be easy or that I could do it alone. Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That's just how it is."
2011: The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, soon to be enshrined as Obamacare, had been signed by the president 10 months earlier. Obama sought to allay concerns about it with the suggestion, laughable even then, that Congress move on.
"Now, I have heard rumors that a few of you still have concerns about our new healthcare law. So let me be the first to say that anything can be improved. If you have ideas about how to improve this law by making care better or more affordable, I am eager to work with you. We can start right now by correcting a flaw in the legislation that has placed an unnecessary bookkeeping burden on small businesses. What I'm not willing to do — what I'm not willing to do is go back to the days when insurance companies could deny someone coverage because of a preexisting condition.
"I'm not willing to tell James Howard, a brain cancer patient from Texas, that his treatment might not be covered. I'm not willing to tell Jim Houser, a small-business man from Oregon, that he has to go back to paying $5,000 more to cover his employees. As we speak, this law is making prescription drugs cheaper for seniors and giving uninsured students a chance to stay on their patients' — parents' coverage. So I say to this chamber tonight: Instead of refighting the battles of the last two years, let's fix what needs fixing, and let's move forward.…
"We should have no illusions about the work ahead of us. Reforming our schools, changing the way we use energy, reducing our deficit, none of this will be easy. All of it will take time. And it will be harder because we will argue about everything: the costs, the details, the letter of every law."