Facing congressional gridlock during a presidential election year, President Obama will skip traditional policy prescriptions in his final State of the Union address, instead using tomorrow night’s speech to Congress to more broadly highlight the economic, social and national security challenges America faces in a rapidly changing world, a top White House aide said this weekend.
The president gathered advisers last month and told them he didn’t want "your traditional policy speech that outlined a series of proposals," White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said yesterday on ABC’s "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."
"Rather," McDonough said, "he wanted to step back and take a look at the future of this country, the challenges we’re going through, making sure that we’re focused on an economy that gives everybody a fair shot, this changing economy, [and] making sure that we’re using all the elements of our national power to keep the country safe."
The speech will also encourage participation by all citizens in the democratic process, McDonough said. "So he’ll be talking about the future. He’ll be very optimistic. He’ll be very action-oriented. But it won’t be your traditional policy speech, per se," he said.
Observers say the president is likely to use the speech as a sort of victory lap after a string of successes in 2015, particularly regarding domestic and global climate policy.
"The president is going to, in his final State of the Union address, highlight the remarkable progress that the United States has made under his presidency," said Paul Bledsoe, a former White House climate official during the Clinton administration.
"And he deserves real credit for taking an issue that many people thought was a political liability and turning it both into a policy and a political powerhouse," Bledsoe said in an interview.
Among the successes for the administration last year: U.S. EPA finalized its Clean Power Plan, compelling states to develop plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants.
And in the historic deal negotiated in Paris last month, the United States and other nations agreed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius and to "pursue efforts" to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. The deal also requires countries to update their emissions reduction pledges periodically.
Mike McKenna, a Republican energy strategist, said that he expects Obama to devote "at least a paragraph" to the Paris agreement — which was the very first of a string of administration wins McDonough ticked off on ABC yesterday, noting that they happened even with Republicans controlling the House and Senate.
Obama is likely to tout American leadership in bringing about the agreement. He’s given U.S. negotiators credit for setting the basic framework for all countries to contribute to reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The administration’s deal with China to reduce CO2 levels was also key in reaching final agreement in Paris.
"The American people can be proud because this historic agreement is a tribute to American leadership," the president said in a Dec. 12, 2015, speech following the deal’s finalization. "Over the past seven years, we’ve transformed the United States into the global leader in fighting climate change."
Since Paris, the White House climate team has repeatedly stressed that the agreement will drive investment in renewable energy technologies, a point the president is likely to make to lawmakers, many of whom reject the administration’s climate agenda.
One of first lady Michelle Obama’s guests in the House chamber will be Washington, D.C.-area businessman Mark Davis, who trains people to perform green tech-related jobs.
‘Huge amount of work’
Beyond touting successes, Bledsoe predicted the president will use his remarks to highlight "a huge amount of work to do" on combating climate change. Obama, said Bledsoe, will likely press for funding breakthroughs in clean energy research and development and emphasize the role of wind and solar energy industry tax credits in reducing CO2 emissions and the need to work collaboratively with other major emitters like China and India.
Natural Resources Defense Council advocates, during a briefing with reporters last week, said they want to see Obama lay down post-Paris climate goals. What NRDC is looking for this year: implementation of the Clean Power Plan, finalized methane regulations on the oil and gas industry, and fuel efficiency standards for heavy-duty trucks.
"The climate problem is one where you just have to keep iterating, you have to keep biting off more and chewing it and take another bite because we have a long way to go," said David Doniger, the advocacy group’s director of the climate and clean air program. "We don’t see any sign of having geared this crescendo of 2015 that they intend to wind it down. We see 2016 as a year of continued, accelerated action."
Ross Eisenberg, vice president of energy and resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, said that he expects Obama to "use a lot of the same talking points he’s been using all along" on climate but is specifically looking for the president tomorrow to answer the question "Where are you going next?" when it comes to addressing greenhouse gas emissions from other sectors of the economy.
Manufacturers, many of them also skeptical of the administration’s policies, would like to know if they’ll face direct carbon rules similar to the Clean Power Plan anytime in the near future, Eisenberg said.
"Timing and content of what these regulations are going to look like are a very big deal to us," he said, "because whether you’re in the pulp and paper sector, the steel sector or the refining sector — you know that at some point, you’re going to have to tackle this issue."
Eisenberg said he’s also looking to Obama to broadly acknowledge that energy commodities are not doing "particularly well now" and to spell out U.S. policy solutions on how to weather the challenges.
Republicans, meanwhile, are signaling that they continue to see energy as a winning election-year issue.
In the weekly Republican address released Saturday, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) highlighted record low domestic gasoline prices, as well as geopolitical advantages of strong U.S. oil and gas production, while warning of the need to keep U.S. drillers competitive.
"Make no mistake, we are locked in a global battle to determine who will produce oil and gas in the world in the future," Hoeven said. "Will it be [the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries]? Russia? Countries like Venezuela? Or will it be us, the United States?"
Hoeven also made a plug for developing new technologies "to produce more energy more efficiently and more cost effectively," while noting the decline in carbon emissions that has accompanied the hydraulic fracturing boom.
"Ironically, as we’re producing more oil and gas, we’re actually lowering CO2 emissions," he said. "Between 2007, when carbon dioxide emissions plateaued, and 2014, we have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 10 percent. That’s in part because we’re producing and using more natural gas from domestic shale like the Bakken formation in my home state."