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Objective

We assess how President Barack Obama acted as chief legislator using the rhetoric contained in his initial joint address to Congress and his three subsequent State of the Union addresses (SUAs).

Method

Using content analysis, we analyze how Obama conveyed policy substance (both credit claiming and position taking) and used symbolism as he carried out the constitutional requirements of reporting and recommending measures to Congress.

Results

Obama's first-term SUA rhetoric is consistent in regard to credit claiming; he devotes about 17 percent of his speeches to this activity. His SUAs typically contain about 35 legislative requests, and these are frequently requests for fairly large-scale actions. His use of symbolic rhetoric is unique. Obama uses individuals and historical examples to highlight the instrumental and effective role government has played in supporting the pursuit of the American Dream. His legislative requests, for his first three full years in office, have been fully or partially successful at a median rate of almost 45 percent, placing him slightly above the median yearly rate since 1965.

Conclusions

Obama's rhetorical choices in the SUA portray him as an unusual chief legislator in many ways. He is deferential to Congress on legislative detail, tending to focus his SUA requests on large-scale items and leaving the details of legislation to Congress. If Congress failed to act, he occasionally sought to accomplish his policy goals through executive actions if he could. He was then able to use the rhetoric of the SUA to portray himself as an active and effective president, something that would aid his reelection and legacy goals. Furthermore, Obama often had to confront unreasonably high expectations, and this strategy helped him position himself against the unpopular institution of Congress as he sought reelection.