The White House has made clear that Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, President Obama’s last, will be like no other.
There will be no laundry list of legislative proposals, most certainly destined to die in a balky Congress. Instead, Mr. Obama will lay out aspirations for the nation’s future and hone his legacy – a mixture of touting accomplishments while acknowledging the challenges Americans still face, aides say.
Obama will appear to soar above the politics of the day – foremost, the pitched battle to succeed him – but of course the speech will be thoroughly political. He wants to be replaced by a Democrat, and the next year will be all about laying down markers that both lock in his legacy and, he hopes, boost the Democratic presidential nominee.
The slide into ineffectual lame-duckery, Obama implies, isn’t a given. In his year-end press conference, he promised to “leave it all out on the field.” But what, really, can he do in his eighth year, amid partisan gridlock? History suggests plenty, and scholars point to recent two-term presidents as models.
“What Reagan does in his last year that’s important to his legacy is he creates an environment where a Republican is elected to follow him,” says Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. “Obama needs to take that as seriously as anything he can do on gun control or immigration or climate change.”
Mr. Reagan’s biggest accomplishment in his final year was to get the Senate to ratify a historic nuclear arms treaty with the Soviet Union – the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, known as INF. Ironically, he did so in the face of Republican opposition, but had built up such goodwill and trust with conservatives, he was successful.
But Reagan was also effective – and helped his vice president, George H.W Bush, to succeed him – by fostering a sense of national well-being. Reagan took office in 1981 amid deep economic woes, but by the election of 1988, a majority of Americans were satisfied with the direction of the country.
A strong economy, or at least a sense of optimism about the future, will be central to Democrats’ prospects in November. On that score, Obama has his work cut out for him; unemployment has been cut in half since he took office, but the middle class is shrinking amid stagnant wages and rising costs. Polls show the public is deeply dissatisfied with the direction of the country, a warning sign for a Democratic Party eager to hold on to the White House.
For Obama, there may not be much left to do, in terms of executive actions he can take to help working Americans. His calls to raise the federal minimum wage have borne no fruit in the Republican-controlled Congress, and he has already taken executive action to raise wages for federal contractors.
“All these areas of economic insecurity exist regardless of whether the economy is doing well or poorly,” says Professor Zelizer. “Obviously, Obama can throw money, through existing programs, at parts of the country that are suffering,” but he can’t authorize new money without congressional approval.
President Clinton’s final year was a combination of accomplishment and missed opportunity. He enacted permanent normal trade relations with China and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization – no small step. And he proved skillful at wielding executive authority, including the preservation of vast areas of conservation land.
But after the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment, Mr. Clinton was damaged, and his presidency will be remembered for its missed opportunities perhaps as much as its accomplishments.
“Clinton could have gone out with a blaze of glory, had it not been for Monica,” says Alvin Felzenberg, presidential historian and author of the book “The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game.”
Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich had worked together on welfare reform and the balanced budget, and entitlements would have been next. “Instead, the atmosphere was poisoned,” says Mr. Felzenberg.
Even President George W. Bush, whose final year in office was wracked by public war-weariness and the near collapse of the economy, could count two signal moments: the appearance of a successful “surge” of troops to Iraq and the Troubled Asset Relief Program, a massive bailout of the financial industry.
Obama, like many presidents on the home stretch, plans to do a lot on the international stage this year, including foreign travel. His splashiest move would be a historic trip to Cuba, in an effort to cement the restoration of ties with the island nation after a 55-year break. Such a trip would inflame conservatives, but the opening to Cuba is increasingly popular with the US public at large.
Obama’s plan to close the Guantánamo Bay prison camp remains a major piece of unfinished business. His chief of staff, Denis McDonough, maintains that the president will try to accomplish that goal by working with Congress. Failing that, executive action is a possibility – and it would be quite controversial – but the White House sidesteps that question.
Observers generally agree that Obama and the Republican-controlled Congress won’t make progress in the coming year on major initiatives such as immigration reform or tax reform.
Still, the recent ascent of Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin to the House speakership raises at least the potential for some kind of meeting of the minds with Obama.
“The two are at least cordial and seem to respect each other,” says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin. “And Speaker Ryan seems to have a handle on his caucus in a way that was hard to predict with certainty before things seemed to settle down and coalesce around him.”
The problem, though, is that the price of coalescing might be that Ryan can’t stray too far in the direction of giving Obama a good final year, which could help the Democratic nominee win the presidential election, says Professor Buchanan. And so for Obama, the likelier scenario is that his final year is largely focused on actions he can take on his own – whether it’s via Air Force One, his pen, or the bully pulpit.