For President Obama, the biggest speech of the year has become smaller and smaller.
After laying out broad, ambitious goals around immigration reform, a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s tax code and serious action against climate change — proposals that, to a large degree, remain unfulfilled — in his first several State of the Union addresses, analysts say the president has made a subtle shift toward micropolicies and more specific, targeted ideas that are able to clear a gridlocked Congress or be enacted through executive action.
Indeed, one of the most notable parts of Tuesday night’s address was Mr. Obama’s plan to raise the minimum wage for federal contracts to $10.10 from $7.25, a substantial change but one that only underscores how this administration has been unable to muscle through Congress a broader minimum wage increase.
“Over the past five years, his number of requests have increased, but the requests have gotten smaller. He started out with some very big, very bold proposals, but eventually, when you look at [more recent speeches], the kinds of things he’s promising and asking for are smaller policies,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who has written extensively on presidential speeches, including State of the Union addresses.
“Historically, the last couple of State of the Unions have been [full of] these small, penny-ante policies that haven’t amounted to that much,” Mr. Rottinghaus said.
The scaling-back of this year’s speech is a fact acknowledged in advance even by some of Mr. Obama’s closest Capitol Hill allies.
The speech won’t put forth “a grandiose agenda. It’s going to be a very practical agenda aimed at middle-class people,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, told The Wall Street Journal.
Just after taking office in 2009, Mr. Obama delivered a speech to a joint of session of Congress. While not technically a State of the Union address, it attracted much the same media coverage and included a similar type of broad agenda-setting. During that speech, Mr. Obama talked of cutting the federal deficit in half in four years, enacting fundamental tax reform, closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and other goals on which the administration has fallen short.
“These were all promises out of that [first term] notion of hubris. As he moved forward, the proposals became smaller and more manageable,” Mr. Rottinghaus said.
A speechwriter for Ronald Reagan told Time magazine in an interview that presidents run out of big things to propose during their second terms.
“Usually the problem is the gas tank’s running on empty, and Obama has used up most of his big initiatives early on. So the challenge is to have something fresh to say,” Kenneth Khachigian said. “I worked on Reagan’s ‘87 State of the Union, and it was a challenge because we had really no new initiatives, nothing earthshaking, and so we were basically left with a tour de raison of past big achievements.”
Last year’s address, while including big ideas such as immigration reform, gun control and other proposals that dominated newspaper front pages in the days after the speech, still illustrated the scaled-down approach.
The president proposed more “manufacturing hubs” across the country to spur innovation and cooperation among universities, the federal government and private industry. He recently announced the creation of the second such hub in Raleigh, N.C.
He also challenged American businesses and families to increase energy efficiency at their facilities and homes, a targeted part of a larger agenda to fight climate change.
The president didn’t ask Congress to pass a broad, permanent K-12 education reform bill as did in recent years, but instead focused on smaller programs to expend pre-K education and make college more affordable.