What Will Obama Say In State Of The Union Address?

Feb 10, 2013
Originally published on February 10, 2013 6:36 am
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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

This week, President Obama delivers the first State of the Union Address of his second term, a key moment in the Washington calendar and in the often difficult relationship between the White House and Congress.

NPR White House Correspondent Ari Shapiro is part of our team covering the speech Tuesday night. And he joins us now for a preview. Good morning, Ari.


MARTIN: So what do we know about the topics the president plans to hit in this big speech?

SHAPIRO: Well, the speech is going to expand on many of the themes from his inaugural address a month ago. That list includes gun control, immigration, climate change, and also some of the themes that he emphasized during his campaign over the last year. Themes of equal opportunity, creating a level playing field.

He also plans to emphasize what he believes America needs to do to succeed in the long term. And in his view that was include infrastructure, education, research and development; investments that he says will lay the groundwork for American prosperity in the coming decades.

MARTIN: Ari, lately Congress seems to be consumed with one financial crisis after another. I imagine that this will also be on his mind and in the speech?

SHAPIRO: Yes, there is such a long list of these crises. I mean, the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling, a possible government shutdown when the budget runs out, the deep cuts known as the sequester that could go into effect just a couple of weeks from now.

On Thursday the president spoke to a meeting of House Democrats in Leesburg, Virginia. And he described the overarching philosophy that he will bring to all of these debates, a philosophy that he plans to articulate in his State of the Union Address.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That our economy succeeds and our economy grows when everybody is getting a fair shot and everybody is getting a fair shake, and everybody is playing by the same rules. That we have an economy in which we're growing a vibrant middle class. That our economy grows from the middle out and the bottom up, not the top down.

MARTIN: Ari, you have also been looking in depth at the White House's efforts to mobilize the American public, not just with the speech, but on a whole range of issues. What have you found?

SHAPIRO: You know, this effort to engage Americans is something that has been part of nearly every Obama speech lately. Here are just a few recent examples.

OBAMA: The only way we can change is if the American people demand it.

Call your Members of Congress. Write them an email, post it on their Facebook walls.

Keep the pressure on your member of Congress to do the right thing.

SHAPIRO: He includes this message when he talks about the fiscal cliff, immigration, guns. Sometimes he even gives people a hashtag to use on Twitter.

Ben LaBolt, who was press secretary for the Obama campaign, says this reflects a lesson the president learned from his first term, that you have to bring the American people with you on any big national project.

BEN LABOLT: He's not going to return to the sorts of closed door negotiations, where a deal is hashed out with Congress behind closed doors, and he hasn't enlisted the support of the American people and used the bully pulpit to do so.

SHAPIRO: The first time President Obama asked people to speak out like this was in 2011, a few years into his first term during debt ceiling negotiations with Republicans, when he urged Americans to call their lawmakers.

OBAMA: You've got to tell them you've had enough of the theatrics.

SHAPIRO: And people crashed the congressional switchboard with their calls. But at the end of the day, the president still did not get the grand deficit reduction bargain that he wanted. The same thing happened when the president took to the road to push a jobs plan.


CROWD: Pass this bill. Pass this bill. Pass this bill.

SHAPIRO: He had crowds chanting pass this bill all across the country. But Congress did not pass the bill. Many of Obama's job creation proposals are still on the shelf. So one question is whether this kind of mobilization effort actually has any impact.

Kevin Madden is a Republican strategist and former Mitt Romney spokesman. He says President Obama is confusing salesmanship with leadership.

KEVIN MADDEN: This is not a partisan observation because both Democrats and Republicans have expressed frustration that President Obama has a demonstrated lack of interest in working with Members of Congress to put together a coalition or the right pieces of a bill that can get enough votes to pass.

SHAPIRO: But in a situation like this, winning could mean more than just passing a bill. After all, during these debates Congress' approval ratings have dropped, while President Obama's have climbed.

In a way, the White House is using this kind of engagement to sell a brand, like any other product. Chris Miller handles digital and social media strategy for major companies, at the advertising firm Draft FCB, and he's impressed.

CHRIS MILLER: Yeah, I think if this was a brand they'd probably win a Effies and a Gold Lion. And, you know, they've done a fantastic job.

SHAPIRO: I take it those are advertising awards?

MILLER: Yeah, sorry, sorry. Those are ad awards that we all want to win in the industry.


SHAPIRO: He admires the way the White House uses each social media tool in a specific way that plays to the strength of that medium.

MILLER: Twitter from a conversational piece. Facebook for sharing rich content. YouTube from a storytelling piece. You know, Google-plus hangouts to create that access and connection in a video format. So they've done a great job of really using not only each channel to its best ability, but then bringing all those messages back together.

SHAPIRO: On Tuesday night, the White House is hosting a State of the Union Social, they're calling it, where some people who follow the president on social media will come to the White House. They'll watch the speech then hold a panel discussion.

These tactics all combine new social media tools with old strategies that Obama learned as a community organizer in Chicago. But there's a major difference, says Aaron Schutz. He's a community organizing expert at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

AARON SCHUTZ: Community organizing groups generally operate around people's issues and values, and that means sometimes they do stuff that the leader might not completely agree with.

SHAPIRO: So, the president is not exactly organizing on behalf of a community here. He's rally people behind his own agenda. In other words, his supporters may want to talk about legalizing marijuana but he will never give them his megaphone for that message.

And there's something else that's different now. The president's campaign group, Organizing for America, has been rebooted as Organizing for Action. On Wednesday that group posted new guidelines on its website, saying OFA will not be involved in elections. Instead, they said, its exclusive purpose is to advance the president's agenda and, quote, "other goals for progressive change."

MARTIN: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro, still here with us.

So, Ari, looking beyond Tuesday, what can we expect from the president in the way of outreach?

SHAPIRO: There's a long tradition of a president traveling after the State of the Union, taking his message to the streets. Obama will do the same, giving more detail on his State of the Union message and, undoubtedly also urging his supporters to get involved.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro. Thanks so much, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Good to talk to you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.