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The Low Expectations for Obama’s Last SOTU

Obama says he's optimistic heading into his last State of the Union. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Obama says he's optimistic heading into his last State of the Union. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

President Barack Obama says he’s upbeat about his final State of the Union address, but the public might not be there with him.  

“I don’t think I’ve ever been more optimistic about a year ahead than I am now,” the president said in a video preview of the speech. His senior aides echoed the party line, saying it will be a different kind of speech, more aspirational; the word “optimistic” seems to be the White House word of the week.  

But that optimism isn’t as widely shared as he hopes, at least as measured by the latest Economist/YouGov survey. GOP Accuses Obama of Empty Words Ahead of SOTU 

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When asked how Obama will go down in history, 30 percent predicted a “poor” legacy, while another 13 percent picked “below average” and 20 percent said “average.” On the plus side, 18 percent said his legacy would be “above average,” and 11 percent said history would view him as an “outstanding” president.  

Obama said the speech and his reflections will be more about the American people. “As I’m writing, I keep thinking about the road that we’ve traveled together these past seven years, the people I’ve met, the stories we’ve shared, the remarkable things you’ve done to make change happen,” he said in the preview. The State of the Union, though, is ultimately a reflection of the chief executive delivering it, and regardless of how much the writers want to make it about someone else, there’s only one person speaking in front of those cameras.  

And that person on Tuesday has a 37 percent strong disapproval rating in this survey, to go along with a 15 percent somewhat disapproval rating. Twenty-six percent approved somewhat of the job he is doing, while 16 percent strongly approved. Only 6 percent were not sure, suggesting most everyone has an opinion of the chief executive who has held the job since 2009.  

Perceptions of presidents have a habit of changing once they leave the Oval Office. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, left office with low approval ratings but has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance since then, particularly among Republicans. Harry S. Truman is the ultimate example of a president virtually chased out of office only to be almost completely rehabilitated in the ensuing years, a “give’ em hell” truth-teller extolled as an example by both parties.  

As of right now, though, Obama’s optimism runs against the tide of public opinion. Sixty-three percent say the country is “off on the wrong track” and only 26 percent say it is “generally headed in the right direction.”  

When it comes to the rest of 2016, which the president says he can barely wait for, 40 percent of the public said Obama will accomplish “about what I expect,” and 33 percent said “less than I expect.” Sixteen percent said they weren’t sure, and 12 percent said “more than I expect.”  

Obama Previews State of the Union 

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So the president has ground to make up in getting buy-in on his sunny forecast. There’s an election in November after all. And the year started with a showdown with the GOP-led Congress over a budget reconciliation measure that sought to repeal his signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act.  

Speaker Paul D. Ryan signaled his own tempered expectations for the speech at his weekly news conference. Asked what he would advise the president to say, the Wisconsin Republican offered a go-for-broke GOP wish list.  

“I would tell him in his State of the Union, ‘I take it all back; the health care was wrong; we should have done Dodd-Frank; I want to actually lower tax rates, clear out crony capitalism, and restore the Constitution to its rightful place in American life.’ That’s what I would encourage him to say. Something tells me he might not say that,” he said.  

Ryan, who was sworn in as speaker in late October, is still relatively unknown to the public. Thirty-six percent of those surveyed said they were not sure whether they approved or disapproved of the job he is doing as speaker. Fourteen percent strongly disapproved of his job performance, while 16 percent somewhat disapproved. Twenty-eight percent somewhat approved, while only 5 percent strongly approved.  

But Ryan will be seated behind Obama for the first time during Tuesday’s speech, opening up a whole new level of exposure as the networks broadcast him next to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., and he’ll be linked, here on out, to the national political conversation and an unpopular Congress.  

Just ask the man he replaced in that seat, John A. Boehner.  

The opt-in Internet survey of 2,000 U.S. citizens was conducted Dec. 30-Jan. 6 and has a 3-point error margin.  

David Hawkings’ Whiteboard: State of the Union 

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