Talk about spoilers. For weeks, President Barack Obama has been unveiling the essence of his agenda for the final two years of his presidency, leaving little drama for Tuesday night’s State of the Union address.
Many presidents have gone about State of the Union addresses differently. Thomas Jefferson didn’t appear before Congress. Richard Nixon sent State of the Union messages to Congress after one of his speeches. Obama is relying on social media, one of his strengths.
No candidate has been more innovative. Similarly, no officer holder is more adept at reaching people where they are. There was, however, meat to Obama’s tweets. He envisions hundreds of billions in new taxes imposed on the richest Americans, lower taxes on the middle class, community college for all, greater Internet access and more.
His campaign organization, Obama for America, took to issuing “SOTU Spoiler Alerts” early in the month. On the day before the State of the Union, the White House tweeted out the president appearing on a Vine, a video that is about as long as haiku: “Tomorrow night, it’s time to restore opportunity for all.” Obama gave the equivalent of a scripted pregame interview for YouTube, and an exclusive post-speech interview to YouTube correspondents.
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“They’re trying to find the audience,” presidential scholar John Woolly of UC Santa Barbara said. He intends to task students who have grown up using social media to gather the tweets, posts and videos for the site he helps curate, the American Presidency Project. “They’re continuing the experimenting. Politics has to be engaging and entertaining.”
Like presidents before him who faced hostile Congresses, Obama is urging that Republicans put their differences aside for the benefit of the nation. And he focused on a theme common among progressives — that the rich should pay more.
Harry S Truman in 1949 told Congress: “We have rejected the discredited theory that the fortunes of the Nation should be in the hands of a privileged few. We have abandoned the ‘trickle down’ concept of national prosperity.”
Then, as now, that is a tall order. House Speaker John Boehner quickly rejected Obama’s call to raise taxes on the richest Americans.
But wealth disparity is an issue that political leaders from both parties must confront. The charity Oxfam issued a report this week stating that the 80 richest people control more wealth than the bottom half of the world’s population, 3.5 billion people.
Certainly, the wealthiest among us can afford to pay a little more so people who didn’t hit life’s lottery can better themselves, or at least get a higher education without going tens of thousands of dollars into debt.
Our guess is that the number of Americans who tuned in Tuesday night fell below the 33.3 million who watched last year’s State of the Union. Certainly, the viewership will be far fewer than the 50 million-plus who tuned in for Obama’s first State of Union speech in 2009.
The event is less significant than it was when Truman gave the first televised State of the Union address in 1947, or when Ronald Reagan laid out his agenda in his first State of the Union.
But the speech matters. It is the one time in any year when the president can enunciate an vision to a national audience. A president matters, even one who faces a Congress held by the opposition party — as is evident for illegal immigrants who no longer must live in fear of deportation, as gays know as the government defends their right to marriage equality, and as Cuba knows now that relations are beginning to be normalized.
No doubt, the administration’s tweets and Vines were in the service of recapturing Congress for Democrats in two years, and holding the White House. That’s the nature of politics. But we hope that amid the ephemera, there is room for the hard work of compromise.