White House

Four things Obama may do during his last State of the Union address to annoy the right

Correspondent Kevin Corke reports from the White House


Some facets of President Obama’s State of the State address Tuesday we needn’t entertain.

There’ll be empty chair up in the House gallery, next to or not far from the first lady. Brace yourself for a lecture on guns – the president (as he did in the Northern Virginia town hall  making it clear that while he doesn’t want to take away anyone’s firearms, but safety comes at the price of greater federal vigilance.

The president will try to convince us that he has a plan for keeping us safe. Let’s see if he can do so without reverting to his professorial days at the University of Chicago (“Islam is a religion that practices peace”).

And he’ll tell the American people that the economy is going great guns (not this president’s turn of phrase) – usually, the second applause line after “the state of our union is strong”.

And what will Mr. Obama offer that will make conservatives eyes roll? Here are four thoughts:

1.   The Biden Shout-Out. Not only is it Obama’s last SOTU, it’s also the last time that Vice President Joe Biden will have a seat in the chamber since he came to Washington in 1973 (that’s not a typo — the man’s been a Washington fixture for four decades).

2015 was Biden’s annus horribilis. In May, he lost his son, Beau. In October, he passed on his last chance to seek the presidency.

By all accounts, Biden has been a loyal vice president. He’s also pushed Obama in directions the President was reluctant to take – most notably, same-sex legalization. But this is a national speech in somber times, with lasting international implications. The President should leave the bromantic embrance and Biden pda back at the White House.

2.   I Want To Work With You Republicans – Even If Everything Is Your Own Damn Fault. No Obama State of the Union would be complete without a (half-hearted) call for bipartisanship, all the while making it clear that it’s obstinate congressional Republicans to blame for Washington gridlock.

From the White House’s perspective, the problem is the GOP as a party of sore losers – even with when Republicans have won midterm elections. Sadly, had the President courted, say, someone quite reasonable like Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, he’d have heard a different story: for all pre-election talk about changing the tone in Washington, once the Democratic House passed the $825 billion stimulus package a week into the Obama presidency, the well was poisoned. The President’s last SOTU will only underscore the disconnect.

3.   Climate Change. You know it’s going to happen – somewhere between gun control and warmer relations with Cuba. The question: how does Obama present climate change – as an extension of his economic agenda, or global scourge sure to kill us all?

I live in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown has latched onto climate-change late in his political career with what might be best described as a missionary zeal. Like Obama, Brown lends overheated language to global warming. And, like the President, when not warning about the coming apocalypse, he’s browbeating his critics.

There’s a smart approach for Brown to take out west – link a changing climate to a parched landscape and a fragile economic recovery. Let’s see if Obama is anywhere as nuanced back in Washington. Should he trot out the line that climate-change is the greatest threat to the planet? Republicans will groan; viewers may change the channel.

4.   The Republican Response.  Wait a second, this is about things that will annoy the right, right? Yes, which is why South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s response bears mention.

Five Republicans have dropped out of the presidential race so far – four, with this in common: all were past or present governors. This suggests the conservative grassroots at present isn’t interested in two things: establishment figures and executive offering the obligatory “as we’d done in my state, I’ll do in Washington” message.

Haley, whose name will surface this summer when veep speculation begins, could tell a tale of all she’s done in South Carolina: economic expansion, education reform and empathy (she deftly handled last fall’s shooting at Charleston’s AME Emanuel Church.

Or, will she use the moment to come out as a Trumpkin (immigration, political correctness and America being pushed around by other nations)?

For years, Republicans have struggled with how to stage a strong response to the Obama State of the Union. Bobby Jindal laid an egg; Marco Rubio had that unfortunate water break. Small wonder some Republicans have soured on the tradition.

Is it too late to see what Trump’s doing Tuesday night?


Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where he analyzes California and national politics. He also blogs daily on the 2016 election at www.adayattheracesblog.com. Follow him on Twitter @hooverwhalen.