Looking to Obama’s State of the Union


Tonight, President Obama will deliver his fourth State of the Union address, and we’ll be watching to see how his reform and transparency ambitions fit within this most public description of the President’s priorities.* In an election year when an anti-Washington campaign theme will still be required, Obama may continue to cast his transparency work as a list of achievements, rather than an affirmative vision for accountable government.

Here are some themes from Obama’s (first) campaign, his Presidency, and previous State of the Union addresses, that could be rejuvinated tonight:

Campaign Finance Transparency:

As we noted last year, Obama directly confronted the Supreme Court Justices in 2010 (shortly after the Citizens United¬†decision), and then avoided campaign finance transparency altogether in 2011. The 2012 State of the Union could see Obama revive the issue from the bully pulpit. Almost nothing was done by Congress during 2011, a year when Congress failed at even defending a draft Executive Order that the President requiring disclosure of political giving from government contractors. The issue is still rife for Presidential engagement, though — people hate the Citizens United decision, and it should be easy to rail against negative ads and dark money in our elections.

The issue could be awkward for Obama, whose former staffers started their own super PAC to aid in his re-election. Even if Obama and his party are to be the beneficiaries of the often secret, unlimited contributions they have warned us about in the past, the President still has a responsibility to push the issue.

Lobbying Disclosure

Obama loves to rail against lobbyists, and they’ve been a staple of previous campaign rhethoric, SOTU addresses, and White House policies. Lobbying disclosure and lobbyists will likely come up again this year, especially as cashing in on public service has become a disputed theme in the Republican presidential contest. We’ll be watching to see whether Obama articulates any kind of affirmative vision for lobbying disclosure, or whether he adopts a “we already did that” posture like he did last year.

The White House has certainly done a great deal on lobbying disclosure, but their work too often relies on the flawed statutory definition of a lobbyist, which is weak, easily evaded, and fails for the most important of influencers.  An affirmative vision for reform is necessary.


Obama pushed for Earmark disclosure in the 2010 SOTU, and then issued a flat veto threat in 2011.  Unfortunately, neither approach has worked, and the supposed ban has made earmark requests a dark art, rather than the subject of public debate. The White House has been reportedly circulating a draft EO on earmark request disclosure, which Sunlight has pushed for extensively. Today would be a great day to issue an updated Executive Order, to protect merit in spending decisions, and keep Members of Congress from strongarming agencies into supporting their pet projects, while often pretending to be opposed to money from Washington.

Working with Congress

After the last year of Continuing Resolutions, near government shutdowns, the debt limit fight, and the supercommittee, watching the heads of divided government share a dais should be entertaining. Political gamesmanship has led the leaders of both parties to break campaign promises (72 hours for all bills, or “end[ing] the practice of writing legislation behind closed doors”).

I don’t expect Obama to raise the bar on negotiating with Congress, but he should. The frustrated-with-Washington undercurrent is about a variety of different things, and party leaders’ tendency to choose each other over the public is near the top of the list. The reset button needs to be pushed for how party leaders approach divided government. The political moment of the State of the Union probably is an insufficient occasion to force such a reconsideration.

Wild Cards

If Obama wants to discuss transparency in his SOTU, there are a variety of other issues he could address in his speech. He could run through the oft-recited litany of White House achievements, like the Open Government Directive, Data.gov, the visitor logs, the Open Government Partership, and while they each have their failings, they’re still successes the White House should highlight.

National Security secrecy, transparency in the finance sector, and the ongoing struggle to strengthen the FOIA could all come up in the speech as well.

We’ll be watching, and have reactions after the address.

*Update: please join us at SunlightLive.com for our live coverage beginning at 9 pm ET.