President Barack Obama's upcoming State of the Union address has me wondering what a President Mitt Romney might have to tell the nation if he was five years into a hypothetical presidency. Despite the enormous differences between the two men, their priorities and the specific policy prescriptions they support, a Romney State of the Union address would probably have featured many of the same elements -- and constraints -- that Obama’s address will contain on Tuesday.
First, a president’s economic policies are a big part of any State of the Union address. This is particularly true during times of economic distress. But even when the going is good, presidents understand that the American people (at least in public opinion polls) will almost always place the health of the economy at the top of a list of priorities they’re concerned about. So it’s natural that presidents feel a need to address this issue.
Romney would have moved quickly in his first term to reform the tax code, further restrain spending, reform entitlement programs, expand trade opportunities and move America toward energy independence. One year into a second term, he would almost certainly have used his State of the Union address to provide an update on his economic policies, but also to call on Congress to act on any part of his economic program that had not been enacted. Some of Romney’s success or failure on the economy -- as in the case of all presidents -- would have hinged on factors beyond his direct control, like the state of the global economy and the partisan composition of Congress.
Second, the need to deal with the pressing challenges of the day, whether domestically or abroad, means that presidents often end up addressing issues at the start of their second term that are “crowded out” of their first four years in office. But because they have had to burn so much of their political capital early on, they’re often left with very little by the time they get into their second term in office.
Romney had an ambitious first term agenda, particularly on jobs and the economy. But this likely would have left other priorities, like reforming our system of worker retraining, further expanding choice in K-12 education and fixing our broken immigration system, for a second term. In that sense, the issues addressed in Romney’s fifth or sixth State of the Union may not have been that different from those that we’ll hear about from President Obama on Tuesday. Of course, the policies and approaches of the two men would be light-years apart. But a laser-like focus on the economy during Romney’s first term would almost certainly have left some important issues unresolved—and those are the issues that would have been highlighted in his speech.
Finally, presidents use the State of the Union to try and place global events in the context of a coherent (and, ideally, compelling) view of America’s role in the world. This year, for example, President Obama will likely argue that his administration’s emphasis on the diplomatic resolution of major conflicts was the key impetus for the nuclear deal that was struck with Iran in 2013.
It’s impossible to predict what global crises would have confronted Romney one year into a second term, but he almost certainly would have used the speech to re-emphasize his belief in American exceptionalism and the importance of a strong military. Romney was fond of saying that this century should be an “American Century,” and his State of the Union would have been an opportunity to deliver an update on the progress of his Administration toward that goal. Romney has always been a staunch believer in the importance of strong relationships with our allies, so he likely would have spent time discussing the state of our friendships with countries like Israel and the U.K.
Perhaps, then, it’s fair to say that when it comes to State of the Union addresses, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Intrigue and drama won’t be a feature of Barack Obama’s address on Tuesday; and the same could have been said if Mitt Romney were delivering the same address one year into his second term in office.
(Lanhee Chen is a Bloomberg View columnist, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and an advisor to several Republican campaigns, including that of California gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari. He was the policy director of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.)
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