SOTU: A Non-Political Speech About Politics

Posted January 11, 2016 at 4:01am
President Barack Obama acknowledegs applause before his address to a joint session of Congress in the House Chamber of the Capitol in Washington , Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009. Vice President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi applaud at rear.  (AP Photo/Pool, Pablo Martinez Monsivais)....................
Obama acknowledges applause before his address to a joint session of Congress in February 2009. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Pool/AP File Photo)

The White House on Monday described President Barack Obama’s final address to Congress
as a non-political speech that will focus on the fate of future generations — but also on politics.

Obama’s primary focus will be on explaining to the American people “the opportunities
and challenges” facing the country over the next few years, Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. He wants the lawmakers he will address to understand the decisions they make in coming months will have ramifications for decades to come.

“The stakes are high,” Earnest said.

Earnest described the speech Obama is planning as an upbeat assessment about Americans’
collective ability to handle the challenges ahead, saying Obama “has never been more optimistic” about their ability to do so.

Administration officials clearly sense an opportunity to draw a clear distinction
with the Republican presidential front-runners as the first primaries and caucuses draw near. To that end, Earnest accused that group of hitting American voters with an “avalanche of negativity.”

The speech will not be finalized until “the last minute” — Obama is scheduled to
begin speaking at 9 p.m. on Tuesday — and he intends to comment on some of the things the GOP candidates have been saying about the state of the country, Earnest said.

While the president is expected to spend some time on the campaign and its heated
rhetoric, Obama’s top spokesman contends it will not be a political speech.

The address, which has ranged from around 6,000 to 7,200 words under the 44th chief
executive, will focus “much less on the next election and much more on the next generation,” Earnest said.

Obama’s desire will be to challenge lawmakers to think beyond the next floor vote
or election, and base their actions on creating a country “more secure, more prosperous, and as as fair as America has ever been,” Earnest said.

“That’s really what’s on the president’s mind,” he added.

The White House’s top spokesman did not directly answer a question about whether the
speech will be crafted to help the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state under Obama. But he did say the president wants a successor who possesses a similar set of priorities.

Earnest also weighed in on an issue that seems to intensify each year: Just how relevant
is the president’s annual speech to a joint session of Congress?

“As important as ever,” Earnest said, adding it is a “good thing” for the country
to be watching a single political speech at the same time — or at least a slice of Americans to be watching. Last year’s address was the second-lowest rated State of the Union since the Nielsen organization began tracking it in 1993. And the numbers
have declined in each year of Obama’s presidency.

Presidents typically use their annual address in the House chamber to lay out their
legislative priorities for the coming year. This year will be different, in part due to the partisan nature of Obama’s tenure, a spate of bills he signed into law late last year, and the 2016 election cycle.

Still, Obama will make a plea for lawmakers to avoid missing rare bipartisan consensus and pass a measure
that would overhaul the country’s criminal justice laws. He also will urge them to approve a sweeping trade pact his administration negotiated with Asian countries. The former has support from Obama and leaders of both parties; but Senate Majority Leader Mitch
McConnell, R-Ky., wants to wait and take up the latter under the next president.

While Obama squeezed in a round of golf on Saturday despite dreary conditions in the Washington area,
he also devoted time over the weekend to working on his big speech. Earnest said the president’s Monday and Tuesday schedules have been purposely left thinner than normal so he can continue writing — and rewriting — the address.

Obama’s speech will open a week of partisan agenda-setting, with bicameral Republicans gathering in Baltimore Jan. 13-15, and Senate Democrats gathering at Nationals Park Wednesday.

Contact Pathé at simonepathe@cqrollcall.com and follow her on Twitter at @sfpathe.


Contact Bennett at
johnbennett@cqrollcall.com
and follow him on Twitter at @BennettJohnT.