Eleanor Holmes Norton thought this would be the year.
The delegate from the District of Columbia had been in touch with the White House, and high-level administration officials had sat with her for meetings and phone calls to discuss her concerns.
Just a few weeks earlier, President Barack Obama had agreed to outfit his fleet of vehicles with the “Taxation Without Representation” license plates that had perhaps for the previous four years been too strong a statement about D.C.’s non-state status.
At that time, a White House spokesman described how the gesture “demonstrates the president’s commitment to the principle of full representation for the people of the District of Columbia and his willingness to fight for voting rights, home rule and budget autonomy for the District.”
There was every reason to think Obama would say something — anything — in his State of the Union address on Tuesday evening about the federal city.
“I am totally baffled,” Norton said in the minutes after Obama concluded his remarks in the House chamber. “I would be less baffled if he hadn’t put the license plates on his vehicle right before the inauguration. Was that a signal or not? Was that the beginning or the end?”
When Obama spoke of “our most fundamental right as citizens: the right to vote,” that would have been the perfect opening, she added.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who is chairman of the D.C.-focused Oversight and Government Reform Committee and has been a champion of expanded autonomy for the city, agreed.
“I expected that [Obama] was going to throw a great many populist statements out and statehood for District of Columbia certainly would have fit that mold,” Issa reflected on Wednesday. “I don’t know why he dissed 700,000 people in the District of Columbia.”
Obama would not have been the first president to mention Washington, D.C., in a State of the Union address in a context unto itself, rather than in reference to the “Washington bubble” that separates Americans from their elected officials.
The last president to mention the District in such a way was George W. Bush, who in his final address to a joint session of Congress thanked it for passing the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. That year, the initiative allowed low-income parents to send more than 2,600 children to private schools through federally funded vouchers. Like all school voucher programs, this one was controversial, but it still marked an acknowledgement of the people on the ground.
President Bill Clinton said in his 1997 address that D.C. should be among those cities to enjoy increased low-tax empowerment zones, and in 1998 he called on Congress to collectively “renew our resolve to make our capital city a great city for all who live and visit here.”
In the early 1970s, during more turbulent times for the District, Richard Nixon devoted portions of three State of the Union speeches to the subject of rampant violence in America’s cities.
“We have a tragic example of this problem in the nation’s capital,” he said in 1970, “for whose safety the Congress and the executive have the primary responsibility. I doubt if many members of this Congress who live more than a few blocks from here would dare leave their cars in the Capitol garage and walk home alone tonight.”
In 1974, Nixon boasted that the city’s crime rate had been cut in half, when “a few years ago [it] was threatening to become the crime capital of the world.”
Had Obama chosen to speak about D.C. in terms of expanded rights on Tuesday night, he also would not have been the most radical: The last president to advocate for “full voting representation in Congress” for District residents was Jimmy Carter in 1981.
In his 1965 State of the Union address, President Lyndon B. Johnson called for the House to take up the Senate-passed D.C. Home Rule bill. In his 1953 and 1961 speeches, President Dwight D. Eisenhower called for D.C. to be granted increased self-governance and the “right of suffrage” and to be eradicated of segregation.
And President Harry Truman, in 1947, said, “We should take adequate steps to assure that citizens of the United States are not denied their franchise merely because they reside at the nation’s capital.” In 1950 and 1952, he endorsed home rule.
Incidentally, Norton said she provided Obama and his staff with many of these examples in her last-ditch effort to compel the president to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors on both sides of the aisle.
In the wake of the slight, she intends to follow up: “I want to know exactly what happened,” she said.
Other local officials and activists, however, are less concerned about what Obama did or did not say than they are about what he might or might not do going forward.
Though “pleasing words” would have been nice, according to DC Vote Communications Director James Jones, “it is more important for us that the president take action when we need him.” Jones’ organization and others will especially be paying attention in April when the city votes on whether to amend the city charter to give itself budget autonomy, as well as how lawmakers continue to work toward that same goal on Capitol Hill.
D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh agreed and cited the White House’s statement of support for expanded D.C. rights as a reason to be optimistic about future wins.
“Even just one line in the State of the Union would have been really wonderful, but I’m not counting as a loss,” she said. “In truth, I didn’t expect it.”