“He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures, as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
– Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama did his constitutional duty, and delivered the annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. It’s a duty steeped in rich history and profound political consequences. The first State of the Union, delivered by George Washington, dealt with debt reduction (mainly from the recent Revolutionary War); 2nd Amendment rights (to form a standing militia in case of British reinvasion); and education and transportation infrastructure.
From Washington onward, the State of the Union has been used to introduce several major policy proposals that have deeply affected American life. President James Monroe used one of his SOTU speeches to introduce the Monroe Doctrine, the first major declaration that the United States would stand up to European aggression and colonization. In his 1941 SOTU, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously argued that every world citizen deserved access to four fundamental freedoms: speech, worship, and freedom from want and fear. This “four freedoms” speech was seen as a precursor to America’s involvement in the Second World War. Lyndon Baines Johnson’s 1964 SOTU declared a “war on poverty,” laying the groundwork for food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid. And more recently, President George W. Bush’s 2002 SOTU, given just months after the 9/11 attacks, grouped Iraq, Iran and North Korea in “an axis of evil.” It was a statement that would set the stage for years of aggressive foreign policy and a subsequent war in Iraq.
How did Obama’s speech stack up with these pivotal moments in American history? Not so well, I’d say. Overall, the speech was relatively safe, centrist with no radical ideas or massive policy overhauls. The President did renew a call for immigration reform, a hike to the minimum wage and defended Obamacare, but overall the speech was muted in comparison to the SOTU’s history of controversial statements. Obama has spent much of the year on the defensive, and it remains to be seen when—if ever—he will regain his legislative momentum. After the 2014 midterm elections might be too late…