“They just want me to light myself on fire,” Obama declared in 2012 after reading lukewarm reactions to his speech, according to a book by David Axelrod, Obama’s former White House adviser.
“The bully pulpit is balkanized now,” said Axelrod. “You do get a large audience for the State of the Union, and that’s worth something. But in a country that is very polarized, speaking before an institution that is very polarized, there are limits to what you can achieve and that’s been an emerging realization since the beginning.”
President Obama’s first SOTU address in 2009 focused on his economic stimulus package for the next two years, as well as health care, energy and education. Then Republican Governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal, an early bet for the 2012 Republican presidential primary, gave the GOP response.
“I remember trying to explain the financial crisis and credit default swaps in that first speech. And that was probably the first time we decided to explain the Recovery Act as divided into three parts,” Jon Favreau, President Obama’s speechwriter who wrote five of his State of the Union addresses, told HuffPo. “That is probably going to be on our tombstone. Describing it in three parts was a signal that we had already lost [the communications battle].”
The president’s second SOTU speech happened one week after the special election to replace the late Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. Republican Sen. Scott Brown won the seat in an upset that left the Democrats without a filibuster proof majority in the upper chamber and Democrats wondered how the health-care bill could pass without a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority.
The 2010 SOTU address was largely about the health-care bill, and the legislation eventually passed two months later, but the Congress and the country stayed polarized. Obama’s SOTU remarks thereafter became more negative, and acted as vehicles for attacks against his opponents after Democrats lost the House in 2010.