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State of the Union experts at Wake Forest University

January 26, 2010

As President Obama prepares for his State of the Union address on Jan. 27, Wake Forest University faculty members weigh in on what to look for in his speech.

Limiting themes in State of Union Address is key

Allan Louden, a professor of communication at Wake Forest University and an expert on political speeches, says it will be a challenge for President Obama to make the State of the Union address “special” because he speaks publically so often, but that he expects Obama to rise to the occasion.

“The administration is awash in words and coverage, mired in a busy agenda, and, if Congress retrenches on Health Care, it is in need of a victory sequel,” Louden says. “But, when the situation needs to be redefined, when the president is written off as not having a rhetorical out for the paradoxes, he gives his best speeches.” 

Louden says the Nobel Peace Prize speech is the perfect example. “The first State of the Union address needs to redefine what all the frenzy has meant. State of the Union speeches have that capacity, unless they get bogged down in too many themes.”

What can the president say about the economy?

How much can the president influence the economy? Not as much as many people think, says Robert Whaples, professor of economics at Wake Forest University. “While politicians (especially presidential candidates) often act as if all our economic troubles can be laid at the feet of their opponents, while they will miraculously solve all our ills, it is important to realize that economic growth and unemployment trends are determined by the decisions and interactions of individuals around the globe. Elected officials and central bankers can take some actions that will influence economic confidence and boost spending, but these tools take time to work and often have disappointing results.”        

Whaples says the effect of any president on economic growth is small “mainly because, despite the rhetoric, policy differences between presidents and parties in the U.S. tend to be pretty small. The debate is not over capitalism vs. communism. It’s about one shade of capitalism vs. a slightly different shade.” Ironically, Whaples says, the unemployment rate among blacks has risen considerably during the first African-American president’s first year in office.   “The main force behind this is probably the fact that steep recessions generally hit less educated workers the worst, and African-Americans tend to have less education than other groups.”

Will Obama mention immigration in his State of the Union Address?

Like all Presidents, Barack Obama will use his State of the Union address to tell the American people what is important to him, says Peter Siavelis, associate professor of political science at Wake Forest University and co-editor of the book “Getting Immigration Right: What Every American Needs to Know.” 

“Talking about immigration is more important than getting into the details,” Siavelis says. But what if Obama doesn’t mention immigration at all? “Moderates will assume that his famous pragmatism has kicked in, and now is just too difficult a time politically to promote immigration reform,” Siavelis says.        

One constituency that will be closely listening to the speech: Hispanics. “If he says nothing, Obama will alienate some of the most important new core supporters of the Democratic Party, convincing them that Obama is just another politician taking advantage of the ‘Hispanic vote’ and then throwing Hispanics under the truck,” Siavelis says. “If he says something, however, he has the potential to begin to solidify what can be a multi-generational set of political loyalties.”

What will liberals be looking for in the State of the Union address?

Liberals will remember that President Obama was elected promising change, says David Coates, Worrell Professor of Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University and the author of “A Liberal Tool Kit.”         

“They recognize that his administration was immediately hit by a tsunami of problems that demanded immediate attention, and by a Republican Party whose idea of bipartisanship was simply to fight change,” says Coates. “But, in his first year, President Obama has been insufficiently radical for many of his own base, and they fear that compromising with an intransigent opposition will only alienate core Democratic voters in the crucial mid-term elections to come.    

“More than anything, they want strong assertive presidential leadership on all these key issues. The White House has to go into campaign mode, rekindling the grass roots enthusiasm that took Obama to the presidency in the first place. For many liberals, the mid-term elections begin with the State of the Union address. The Republicans are already in campaign mode. The question is: ‘is the President?’ ”         

David Coates is available for comment before or immediately after President Obama’s speech: (336) 407-6524.

Press Contacts:

Kerry King
(336) 758-6084

Ellen Sterner Sedeno
(214) 546-8893

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