Federal Update: President Obama Delivers His Last State of the Union Address

January 13, 2016

Last night, President Barack Obama delivered his last State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. Traditionally, the State of the Union provides the President with a primetime, national audience to present his legislative agenda and tout recent accomplishments. However, this being President Obama’s final address, and with the speech marketed as a “non-traditional” State of the Union, the President offered a closing argument for his time in office and a prologue to “The future we want…”

Ahead of the Iowa Caucus on February 1st, the speech also allowed the President to set the table for the election year with a clear articulation of his goals and ideals and to contrast the Democratic principles of his seven years in office with the heated rhetoric of the presidential campaigns.

Largely free of the concrete policy agendas that define most State of the Union addresses, President Obama’s speech focused on issues that he believes matter well beyond two- and four-year election cycles. Specifically, the President highlighted four major themes: economic opportunity; innovation; national security; and fixing our politics. With little time in office remaining and deep divisions in Congress, President Obama reframed his leading priorities as transcendent generational challenges that demand attention beyond his time in office. He pledged continued efforts in these areas, including potential near-term legislative success in areas like trade, prescription drug abuse, and criminal-justice reform, but more likely than not, with the exception of narrowly-tailored Executive Orders, the substantive legislative portion of the Obama Presidency is very nearly closed. 

Below, we offer highlights from the State of the Union in Harvard’s areas of interest.

Federal Research and Innovation:

On the heels of a significant increase in NIH and scientific research funding in the FY16 omnibus, President Obama announced a national commitment to curing cancer as we know it, saying “Medical research is critical,” and building on Vice President Biden’s moonshot comments following the death of his son Beau. Beyond medical breakthroughs, Obama highlighted innovation and science, technology, engineering, and math education as keys to growing the economy and producing higher wage jobs.

Education and College Access:

The President focused on education, noting the recent bipartisan efforts that culminated in the passage of a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  In higher education, the President continued to draw attention to the cost of college, noting his Administration's efforts to improve the affordability of student loans and to work with states toward free community college. 

Climate Change:

The President made a plea for acknowledging the science behind the concerns around climate change.  He touted the recent Paris Agreement among 200 nations to curb emissions and halt or reverse the effects of climate change, and he delivered his argument for investing in alternative fuels and energy innovation.

Looking Ahead

With his final State of the Union now complete, the President will turn to the rollout of his final budget proposal, due out February 9th. That document will feature the nuts and bolts of his last legislative agenda, and with budget caps already set under last year’s bipartisan budget agreement (reported here), there are not likely to be many significant changes in funding levels or policies from the FY16 omnibus (reported here, updated funding table here).

The President has vowed to remain active in the fourth quarter of the fourth quarter, and he consistently reminds Congress and the American people that he still has his bully pulpit and his pen. Following last night’s speech, the President will visit Omaha, Nebraska and Baton Rouge, Louisiana—his first visits there—in part to urge those states to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Once a Democratic nominee is named, the President may spend more time on the campaign trail in places he is popular, but until then, he will likely focus on winning support for what little is politically possible this year and for his aspirational view of the future.

In Congress, we anticipate much of the focus will also be political.  However, progress may continue on legislation that enjoyed bipartisan support in the recent past, including the FAA reauthorization, the 21st Century Cures Act, and perhaps the somewhat more partisan COMPETES reauthorization. Committees are also expected to continue work on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, although completion seems unlikely.  


As always, please feel free to reach out with any questions to Kevin Casey (kevin_casey@harvard.edu), Suzanne Day (suzanne_day@harvard.edu), or Jon Groteboer (jon_groteboer@harvard.edu) on Harvard’s Federal Relations team (DC: 202-863-1292).