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Obama to deliver ‘real’ State of the Union as presidency enters final year

2008 campaign promised ‘change you can believe in,’ but was it all the people – or the president – hoped?

It was a century ago when Teddy Roosevelt dubbed the presidency the “bully pulpit” — meaning that by virtue of his roles as the commander in chief and as a world leader, the president does not have to talk so loudly to be heard and that, once heard, can motivate change. It is a concept that must have been attractive to Barack Obama when he was first a candidate for the highest office in the land. His campaign, after all, promised “change you can believe in.”

But some seven years removed from that 2008 election, as Obama takes to the well of the House and to national television to deliver his last State of the Union address, he faces questions about what change is still possible in the final year of his presidency and whether anyone in the voting public believes he changed anything at all.

Conventional wisdom dictates that final State of the Union speeches can be divided into two broad categories: the ones that look back, touting a list of achievements in an attempt to define the more-or-less lame duck president’s place in history, and the ones that charge forward, a sort of “do not go gentle into that good night” agenda setter, as if, with electoral politics in the rearview mirror, the chief executive can go after what is really important. Obama, however, through his team’s advance work, is insisting tonight’s speech will be something else: a real state of the union — meaning, apparently, a clear-eyed assessment of the health of the nation.

Whether Obama can deliver on that modest change will be a minor point for the postspeech analysis, but the president’s desire to reposition his real rhetoric reflects a real problem facing him, his party and the country.

The White House long ago acknowledged — internally and eventually externally — that his tenure is in a postlegislative phase. The loss of a Democratic majority in the House in the 2010 midterms made moving his agenda through Congress difficult; the loss of the Senate in 2014 made it impossible. In past years, the State of the Union speech would have still offered a list of legislative goals — as a tonic to Democrats and as an olive branch or a cudgel to Republicans — but anything as specific as a new law or broad revision would likely be roundly rebuffed this time around as a waste of a Tuesday night.

But on the other side, to spend the evening looking back, claiming there was not only real change but change demonstrably for the better, could prove an even harder sell.

It is not as if there hasn’t been change since Obama took the oath of office in 2009: the stimulus that backfilled the hole opened by the economic collapse of 2008; a bailout of the auto industry that potentially saved hundreds of thousands of jobs; diminishing the role of private lenders in student loans, saving the government millions of dollars that were then used to expand Pell Grants; changes in the way government aids and assesses elementary school education; troop drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq; the killing of Osama bin Laden; an increased reliance on aerial drones to attack alleged threats; new goals on greenhouse gas emissions, expanded loans to renewable energy technologies and dozens of new rules to increase energy efficiency; and, of course, the Affordable Care Act, commonly called “Obamacare.”

But for all that surrogates and critics can list, there is a curious sense across broad parts of the United States that nothing much has changed in the last seven years — at least not in terms many working Americans can define. For every shovel-ready project that was funded by the stimulus, there is a family that is making less, in real terms, than they were before the financial collapse. For all the jobs restored to the economy during the Obama years, many are lower-paying and less career-oriented than the ones lost. The way schools are allocated federal money may have changed, but to many, the public education system is still underfunded, overcrowded and overreliant on standardized testing.

Bin Laden may be dead, but the perceived threat of terrorist violence is again elevated. And though there are far fewer Americans dying in combat, the number is not zero, and the veterans returning home with physical and mental problems who now crowd the underfunded health system for the VA are a regular reminder that wars don’t always end when a president says they do.

The Affordable Care Act has reduced the number of uninsured, but it has not come close to eliminating that problem. And for all the talk during the debate over the legislation of bending the cost curve, most in the U.S. have seen health insurance premiums, doctors’ bills and drug prices increase, even if it is by less than projected five years ago.

The broad initiative on carbon emissions and climate change is quite literally one for the ages, with the short-term changes in the way energy is created vulnerable to Republican attacks while the long-term benefits, realized by the children and grandchildren of tonight’s intended audience — if they are realized at all.

None of the above are nothing, but is it change? Or more to the point, is it change the electorate believes?

For while Obama stands up tonight to reflect or improve on his legacy, a great deal of that legacy is dependent on who will stand before Congress this time next year. Nothing — especially given how much of the Obama era has been defined by change made through executive order instead of legislation — will preserve the president’s legacy quite as much as his ability to help a Democrat win the right to replace him.

And that, rhetorically, at least, will be no small task. For while being a steady, patient leader might play well in the marketplace or in diplomatic circles — forestalling a possible economic collapse or geopolitical crisis — it is hard to build a campaign around the rallying cry of “It could have been much worse.”

It’s probably not what Obama imagines he will be saying; it’s probably not even how the man who said during the 2008 campaign that he wanted to be a transformative president in the mold of Ronald Reagan actually sees his time in office. It is certainly not how he expects his last turn at the bully pulpit will play to 2016 voters. But to a mother working two service-sector jobs, a college graduate looking at six-figure debt or a Gulf veteran on a months-long waiting list for psychiatric care, it is the uncomfortable reality of their states.

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