- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A State of the Union address can launch major reforms, focus the nation’s attention or spark international tensions. But for many groups looking to advance their agenda, just earning a mention by the president is the Holy Grail.

With President Obama set to give his first such address Wednesday night, groups ranging from D.C. voting rights advocates to supporters of an immigration-law overhaul are angling for even the briefest showing of presidential favor from the House podium.

“It can have a very significant impact,” said Bob Dinneen, chief executive officer of the Renewable Fuels Association.

Mr. Dinneen cited President George W. Bush’s address in 2006 as a case in point. In the speech, Mr. Bush talked about the need to stop the nation’s “addiction” to foreign oil and to embrace ethanol and other renewable fuel sources.

“It really teed up a discussion about energy policy and led to the passage of the energy bill in 2007 that resulted in the renewable-fuel standard in this country,” Mr. Dinneen said. “So it was an important catalyst.”

Earlier this week, proponents of giving the District of Columbia full voting rights in Congress sent the White House a petition with 41,000 signatures in hopes of persuading Mr. Obama to devote some airtime to the cause, which he has endorsed in the past. The group even invited supporters to compete in a contest to draft the ideal language to load into the presidential teleprompter.

“Most Americans do not know about this problem,” said Ilir Zherka, executive director of D.C. Vote, noting that surveys show most voters think the District already has full congressional voting rights. “The president could help us educate Americans about this problem by mentioning it.”

Perhaps more important, Mr. Zherka said, Mr. Obama could help break a stalemate by urging lawmakers to find a way forward on legislation that passed the Senate but has stalled in the House.

“I think having him address this issue when he’s before the Congress and calling on them to send a bill would be very helpful,” he said.

To many viewers, the modern State of the Union address may sound like a laundry list, but previous speeches demonstrate the influence that the annual rite can have.

Mr. Bush almost singlehandedly focused the nation’s attention on steroids by demanding in his 2004 address that team owners clean up pro sports. And one year earlier, in the run-up to the Iraq war, Mr. Bush mentioned then-Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein’s search for nuclear materials, which began a chain of events that eventually led to federal criminal charges for former vice presidential Chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

This year, some groups could use a presidential mention to help soothe frayed relations.

About 250 immigrant rights advocates rallied outside the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday in a pre-State of the Union protest over what they say is halting progress on revamping immigration laws and legalizing millions of immigrants.

Mr. Bush called for an overhaul of the country’s immigration system in every State of the Union address from 2004 through 2008. Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy and advocacy at the liberal Center for American Progress, said immigrant rights activists will be listening closely to hear whether Mr. Obama raises the issue, including her 92-year-old Bolivian-born grandmother.

“She’s listening for the word ‘immigration,’” Ms. Kelley said.

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