Just weeks after the tragedy in Tucson, President Obama used his annual State of the Union address to urge the nation to move past divisive political debates and work together to confront the nation’s problems.
“What comes of this moment,” Obama explained to an audience of legislators, who eschewed the traditional partisan State of the Union seating chart, “will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.”
While the President earned plaudits for his tough talk, turning it into tangible results will prove to be a greater challenge. That subject, how the president can use his speech to jumpstart his domestic and international policy agenda, was the central topic of a USC panel discussion on the State of the Union Address, hosted by the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy (CCLP).
The January 25th event, co-sponsored by the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, featured CCLP Director Geoffrey Cowan, Unruh Institute Director Dan Schnur, and former editor-in-chief of USC Daily Trojan Kate Mather.
The panelists agreed that President Obama appropriately honored Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in a speech that centered on a theme of developing a greater spirit of cooperation in our political landscape.
When asked about the political implications of the Tucson tragedy, Cowan made comparisons to Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing and Bush after the 9/11 attacks to illustrate the “healer role” that the president assumes in order to unite the country, despite political alliances.
Schnur dubbed the role “Healer-in-Chief” and Mather said that despite the disaster, it would “widen Obama’s audience” for the evening and allow for him to clearly “present his policies.”
As the panel turned to bipartisanship and the symbolic nature of civility in politics, Cowan stated, “I want to say a thing about partisanship, in one sense, competition can be a good thing.” Schnur echoed Cowan’s remarks. “President Obama and Speaker Boehner have some political incentive to reach out across party lines more aggressively than we have seen in Washington over the last few years.” While civility is symbolic, it does matter in laying the foundation for successful bipartisan policy.
Obama’s ideological standpoint was also expected to be addressed in his speech. “On some of the most important issues of the day, you have to say [Obama] is a centrist and maybe he always has been,” Cowan said. It was noted that Obama has to take into account the Republican majority in the House and his future campaign for re-election. Cowan continued, that “a really smart politician keeps their base support, but also reaches out to the center.”
More than 100 students, faculty, and staff attended the CCLP event held at USC Annenberg, and the crowd hushed as Obama walked into the Capitol amidst cheers and handshakes.
While bipartisanship was noted, Obama focused on the United States’ competitiveness internationally. “This is our generation’s sputnik moment,” Obama declared as he outlined his policy agenda for the economy, job growth, education, renewable energy, and transportation infrastructure.
“This may not be a defining moment, but a solidifying, increasing moment [for the president],” responded Cowan, explaining that the State of the Union address, in comparison to inaugural addresses of Commander-in-Chiefs of the past, hold a larger weight with the issues currently facing the nation.
Schnur described the State of the Union as containing more tangible public policy, such as Obama’s call for a freeze on government spending and increased monitoring the public educational system.
While the language of the national address may not be memorable, it is important in weaving certain policies into a larger context to allow the public to understand the broader impact the president wishes to make and, therefore, have an effect on how that policy is perceived, Schnur explained.