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.
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 used social media, one of his strengths, tweeting out the text 20 minutes before he started speaking.
No candidate was more innovative in the use of social media than Obama. No officeholder has been more adept at using social media to reach people where they are. There was, however, meat to Obama’s tweets.
In his speech, he set forth a vision that includes hundreds of billions in new taxes imposed on the richest Americans, lower taxes on the middle class, free community college for all, paid sick leave for workers who don’t now have it, gender equality in wages, greater Internet access, freer international trade, additional medical research, and more.
His campaign organization, Obama for America, had taken 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 a pre-speech chat for YouTube, and an exclusive post-speech interview to YouTube correspondents.
“They’re trying to find the audience,” presidential scholar John Woolley 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. “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 dwelled 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.”
Said Obama: “As Americans, we don’t mind paying our fair share of taxes, as long as everybody else does, too. But for far too long, lobbyists have rigged the tax code with loopholes that let some corporations pay nothing while others pay full freight. They’ve riddled it with giveaways the superrich don’t need.”
House Speaker John Boehner quickly rejected Obama’s call to raise taxes on the richest Americans. But both parties must confront wealth disparity. 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. The event is less significant than it was when Truman gave the first televised State of the Union in 1947.
But the speech matters. It is the one time in any year when the president can enunciate a vision to a national audience. The president matters, even one who faces a Congress held by the opposition party – as is evident for law-abiding undocumented immigrants who no longer must live in fear of deportation, as gays see as the government defends their right to marriage equality, and as Cuba knows now that relations are beginning to be normalized.
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 all the ephemera, there is room for the hard work of compromise.