Unpacking the State of the Union

Following the president's proclamation that "the State of the Union is strong," Gautam Mukunda and Kevin Sharer look at the broader implications of his speech.

22 Jan 2015   Christian Camerota

President Barack Obama delivered his sixth and penultimate State of the Union address on Tuesday, Jan. 20. It marked the first time, however, that he had to deliver the agenda-setting speech to a Republican Congress.

Below, Harvard Business School assistant professor Gautam Mukunda, and senior lecturer Kevin Sharer, former chairman and CEO of Amgen, both experts in leadership, unpack the President's words and give their views as to what they mean for the future of the United States.

Mukunda: President Obama’s State of the Union address showcased a strikingly confident president. As often happens in this genre, however, the speech’s occasional poetry was buried by a laundry list of policy proposals. Its most memorable single line was the ad-libbed “I have no more campaigns to run. I know because I won both [elections],” – a pointed quip from a president unchastened by his party’s defeat in the elections last November.

Any analysis of a presidential speech must start with the fact that speeches rarely matter. Obama, facing a Republican opposition whose commitment to obstructionist politics has no parallel since Democrats in the 1850s, has little chance of more legislative achievements. What he can do is set the agenda, and his speech last night was striking both in what it mentioned and what it failed to include.

The president epitomizes the theory I proposed in my book, Indispensable. He is a quintessentially “unfiltered” leader – one who leaves a distinctly individual stamp, for better or worse (as opposed to those leaders who have risen up the ranks in corporate America or politics over the years and thus lost their individuality). His focus on inequality and his technocratic emphasis on science and technology, for example, are classically Obamaesque. It seems unlikely that Hillary Clinton, for example, would have given those issues the same level of prominence.

On the flip side, perhaps his best proposal – a tax on the liabilities of financial institutions with over $50 billion in assets – went unmentioned despite its potential to generate substantial revenue, improve the stability of the financial system, and help counter the financialization of the economy.

The president intends to set the terms of the debate in the 2016 elections, and last night he made a good start toward doing just that.

Sharer: President Obama is a gifted orator, and his gifts were on full display last night. His speech is best considered as a summary of the current state of affairs and his administration's plans and priorities for the future.

By any set of objective measures, this country is in profoundly better shape absolutely and in comparison with other advanced countries compared to six years ago. The president was accurate and right to remind us that we have made enormous progress during that time. Were he a business CEO, he would get full credit for this progress. We still have the best system in the world, and though we have many challenges, we have dealt with a series of profound economic crises more effectively than our peers.

The second half of the speech, however, was sadly predictable and profoundly political, with little chance that Obama can actually catalyze progress on any of the major issues we face today. A low point for me was his claim that the budget submitted by the administration was "practical and not partisan" before he launched into a description of a tax and redistribution proposal that has no chance of enactment. Our tax code is burdensome and unfair, so why didn’t the president offer plans for a comprehensive overhaul instead of advancing a proposal that can only be seen as an opening shot in the 2016 presidential contest?

Obama then diluted the potential power of the speech, as all recent presidents have done, by covering a long list of other topics rather than choosing to focus on a comprehensible number of truly priority objectives he plans to devote his time and power to achieving.

As for the Republicans, they continue to be a disappointment, and their response, via Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, was weak. It has been two months since the election, and they have presented no real plan other than opposing anything and everything the president suggests or has done.


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