On the evening of January 12, 2016, in his seventh and final State of the Union (SOTU) address, President Barack Obama delivered a look back at what he hopes will be remembered as his legacy accomplishments in office, as well as an optimistic look ahead to what he hopes will guide his successor after the 2016 presidential election. His SOTU address was directed more to the American people rather than to Congress. The president departed from past SOTU addresses, which traditionally pronounce a “wish list” of sweeping legislative goals for Congress item-by-item for the coming year. Instead, while mentioning a few of his short-term goals and defending his use of executive action when Congress refuses to cooperate, the president set broad goals he hoped the country would continue to pursue after his term in office ends.
While most of his address centered on national security, jobs, and the economy, in addition to individual issues such as gun control and climate change, the president also mentioned broad goals affecting labor and employment policy, including:
- the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement and trade policy;
- immigration reform;
- income inequality and increasing the minimum wage and overtime pay;
- gender equity, including equal pay;
- paid family and medical leave; and
- labor law reform to bring about increased union representation.
Indeed, early in his remarks, President Obama stated,
And I’ll keep pushing for progress on the work that still needs doing. Fixing a broken immigration system. Protecting our kids from gun violence. Equal pay for equal work, paid leave, raising the minimum wage. All these things still matter to hardworking families; they are still the right thing to do; and I will not let up until they get done.
Later, while proclaiming that “a thriving private sector is the lifeblood of our economy,” he advocated for reform:
I think there are outdated regulations that need to be changed, and there’s red tape that needs to be cut. But after years of record corporate profits, working families won’t get more opportunity or bigger paychecks by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at the expense of everyone else; or by allowing attacks on collective bargaining to go unanswered.
While introducing specific new policy proposals would be unachievable, President Obama’s message was nevertheless forward looking: “But for my final address to this chamber, I don’t want to talk just about the next year. I want to focus on the next five years, ten years, and beyond.” In an effort to address the underlying concerns of Americans reflected in the latest CBS News/New York Times poll, which indicated that only 27 percent of U.S. residents believe the country is headed in the right direction and two-thirds believe it is on the wrong track, he spoke against cynicism, noting that “democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens,” urged Congress to “change the system to reflect our better selves,” and said that “ our optimism and work ethic, our spirit of discovery and innovation, our diversity and commitment to the rule of law.” The question is how many people were watching. Viewers have decreased in each SOTU address since his first one.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley delivered the Republican response, which called for better times in a future Republican administration. In Haley’s tough but gracious response, which was well received both by Republican and Democratic pundits, she conceded that both political parties bear responsibility for dysfunction. While acknowledging the need for stronger immigration policies to address illegal immigration, she criticized those who would attack immigration based on national origin or religion.