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5 Things to Watch for in State of the Union Speech

By Jessica Durando

Illustration by Val B. Bochkov

Illustration by Val B. Bochkov

President Barack Obama will deliver his State of the Union speech this week, detailing his top priorities and plans for the next four years.

American University experts analyze the issues facing the nation and discuss areas that Obama should be focusing on in his speech.

Here are their five things to watch.

1. Bipartisanship Efforts

President Obama made bridging partisan divisions the cornerstone of his first campaign. But will he keep attempting to reach across the aisle now that he’s in his second term? “He does need to reach out to the audience that didn’t support him,” said Robert Lehrman, adjunct professor for the School of Communication and author of The Political Speechwriter’s Companion: A Guide for Speakers and Writers. “There should be something that will make his opposition think he’s likeable and realistic.”

Lehrman said the president has already outlined some of the areas he’ll likely cover in his State of the Union speech in his inaugural address. “I think he’ll clearly want to talk about jobs, the economy, and immigration. I would be very surprised if he didn’t mention guns. The deficit, education, and roads and bridges (what wonks call infrastructure) will also be touched on.“

Lehrman explained that Obama would tout his successes and talk about the issues he believes to be important in the United States. “The State of the Union is a partisan document. It’s not just the state of the union; it’s the state of the Obama administration.”

2. Climate Change

During his State of the Union addresses, President Obama's emphasis on energy and climate change has evolved. In 2009, he called on Congress to pass sweeping climate legislation whereas in 2011, he focused heavily on energy but did not mention climate. 

Following his reelection, the president is expected to put the issue back on his roster in the 2013 speech.

Jordan Tama, assistant professor for the School of International Service and research fellow for the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, agrees Obama needs to address climate change in addition to areas such as the federal budget, spending, and terrorism.

“In the second inaugural speech he spoke eloquently about the need to take action to slow climate change, but he didn’t really explain what he intends to do,” Tama said. “I think he has to say a little more about what he has in mind for the second term with regard to climate change.”

It remains to be seen how far the president will go in outlining a plan of action.

3. Economy

Obama recently said he wants to create an alternative to automatic spending cuts set to take place in March because it endangers the economy. Republicans have offered no deal so far to offset the $1.2 trillion in cuts over 10 years.

Jennifer Lawless, associate professor for the School of Public Affairs and director for the Women & Politics Institute, said focusing on the fiscal crisis during the State of the Union will allow the president to reiterate proposals that he considers viable and that in the past have achieved some level of bipartisan support.

“This provides him with one more opportunity to demonstrate that he’s the adult in the room, and the Republicans are unruly children. That seems to be playing well with the American public,” Lawless said.

She thinks by putting his proposals back on the table, it could give the White House and the Democrats the upper hand because it could make Republicans appear as obstructionists.

“Being that Obama’s approval ratings are higher now than we’ve seen in quite some time, this strategy seems to be working, and I can’t imagine that he’s not going to continue pushing it forward in the address.”

4. Foreign Policy Agenda

Since State of the Union speeches are a platform for laying out the president’s agenda and offering plans for the direction that he wants to take the country in, Obama will likely discuss stimulating the economy, said Leonard Steinhorn, professor for SOC.  Steinhorn also thinks he’ll likely talk about the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and the Newtown, Conn., shooting.

But a definite topic of the night, from Steinhorn’s point of view, is Obama’s foreign policy record and future international objectives.

“One of those issues he’ll no question address is a timetable for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan,” Steinhorn said. “So you’re really talking about where he wants to take this country, his sense of purpose, and how he wants to carry that our through legislation and policy.”

5. Gun control

The debt, the deficit, job creation, and immigration are all obvious topic areas that James Thurber, distinguished professor for SPA and director of the Center for Congressional and Political Studies, thinks Obama will cover during the State of the Union. 

But with unprecedented public support for tougher gun laws in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shooting in December, Thurber thinks Obama will need to address gun control, too.

“Obviously, he’s going to talk about gun control measures and when he does, he’ll most likely have someone in the balcony to represent that symbolically.”

Thurber said he thinks Obama will also appear more hard-hitting with simpler messages.

“He needs to campaign from the White House in a way. He’s appealing to the American people above the heads of Congress in the State of the Union, therefore, he needs to keep it as simple as possible,” Thurber said. 

In his book, Obama In Office, Thurber criticized the president for not keeping his message simple and using repetition. “And he didn’t brag enough. He needs to brag a little more.”

Interviews conducted by Lauren Ober