- 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.

But she also said there’s a limit to what a presidential mention can do.

“It’s an important signal, but a speech is not a signing ceremony,” Ms. Kelly said.

Another group looking for some consideration is the Humane Society of the United States, which hosted a press event titled “The State of the Union’s Horses” on Tuesday to highlight legislation banning the transportation of horses for slaughter.

Separately, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition is urging Mr. Obama to explicitly back a plan under which the government would help people reduce the principal owed on their mortgages as a means of reducing home foreclosures.

The pressure is not only from outside groups, however. Presidential scholar Stephen Hess recalled Cabinet officers camping out until 2 a.m. outside the office where he and other aides were writing a State of the Union address for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, just to try to make the case for including a favorite project.

“It was their calling card to their own department that the president wants this,” said Mr. Hess, senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution. “It was that important to them.”

Indeed, Mr. Dinneen of the renewable-fuel trade group noted that the address is not aimed exclusively at Congress and the public, and has an important role in setting priorities within the executive branch itself.

“He’s also speaking to his own agency heads, and he can send some really important signals,” Mr. Dinneen said, adding that his industry would like Mr. Obama to recommit his administration to the biofuels effort.

Matt Latimer, a former speechwriter for Mr. Bush, said the internal lobbying was very intense as top-level Cabinet officials jockeyed to get their favored projects a mention.

In Mr. Bush’s final address in 2008, Mr. Latimer said, Vice President Dick Cheney’s office lobbied for tougher language on Iran, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wanted recognition of Foreign Service officers working in war zones, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates wanted a mention of his push to expand hiring preferences and child care for military spouses.

The speech ended up reflecting all three ideas.

But Mr. Latimer said just as intense was the effort to remove items, such as a vow some advisers had sought that Mr. Bush would veto the first spending bill that contained congressionally directed earmarks.

That was watered down to a vow to veto bills that did not cut the number and cost of earmarks in half.

Despite all their efforts — the petition, repeated phone calls and a letter to Mr. Obama from Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C. Democrat — Mr. Zherka of D.C. Vote said the group has not heard back from the White House, but he isn’t surprised, given the likely volume of activists for other issues lobbying for a mention.

“If it’s not in the State of the Union, hopefully, it will be somewhere else, but we’re not going to let up,” he said.

But their best efforts may be lost on this White House. Asked about the issue on Tuesday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, “I don’t know whether anybody has seen the petitions or anything about what that is.”

Stephen Dinan contributed to this article.

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