Transportation Issues and President’s State of the Union

Will transportation issues make it into Obama’s State of the Union speech? Image – President Obama signing MAP-21 into law, via White House website.

Every January transportation stakeholders hope that the President’s State of the Union speech will include a focus on transportation issues.

It always seems like it is a ripe issue to discuss. After all, the nation’s communities and businesses depend on the transportation network to get to work, school and meetings, and to deliver goods. Meanwhile, we can’t seem to afford the bill for repairing or replacing the bulge of roads and bridges built since the 50’s, or refashion parts of the transportation network to accommodate changing needs and demographics, and reduce transportation’s impact on our environment.

Yet transportation is rarely referenced in the President’s SOTU.  I think that’s mostly because arguably more important issues take center stage. In recent years – and probably this year – jobs and the economy have been the key issue.  History bears that out, according to this graphic:


The President talked about transportation a fair amount in the spring of 2012 on the campaign trail. Later, however the issue wasn’t included in his pre-election to-do list for Congress (see our story “Is Transportation Bill Included in Obama’s Pre-election To-Do List for Congress?“). And by most accounts in the last week, transportation won’t be mentioned much if at all in the 2013 SOTU.

However the Washington Post reports the President “will call for new infrastructure investment—roads, bridges, power grid, that sort of thing.” And some groups, like unions, are publicly calling for the President to talk about infrastructure investment.

The 2012 SOTU had few references to transportation, as we anticipated (“State of the Union – Will It Again Highlight Transportation?“).

But the 2011 State of the Union had more transportation references than the previous twenty or so SOTU speeches (see the text & our commentary: “State of the Union Features Transportation“) which prompted rave reviews from the US Chamber and the AFL-CIO (“US Chamber & AFL-CIO Praise Obama Focus on Transportation“).

This could be the President’s last important and relevant SOTU. The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan and Aaron Blake explain:

“Obama is trying to advance his most ambitious legislative agenda since his first year in office. . . .And he’s doing it on the heels of a reelection victory. The country just doubled down on Obama’s agenda, which isn’t something the president could have said, even at his peak popularity in early 2009.

“Looking ahead, it’s easy to see how Obama’s future State of the Union speeches could easily be less memorable. In 2014, Obama will be addressing Congress in the runup to the midterm elections, so his legislative agenda isn’t expected to be nearly as packed. Things simply don’t get done during election years the way they do in off years.

In 2015, Obama will be nearing the end of his presidency, and the power he will have to drive his agenda will likely be weaker than it is right now, if previous midterms are any indication. And in 2016, the race to succeed him will be in full swing, with primaries on both sides that promise to seize the attention of the political world. (“Why President Obama is about to deliver his most important State of the Union address,” The Washington Post.)

Previewing the SOTU, Brookings experts examine the issues facing the nation, and discuss in some really good short essays which areas President Obama should focus on. No, transportation did not make the list, although a somewhat-related essay about taxing carbon made the list.

Two oddities about previous Obama SOTU’s:

1) Bush talked about “hope” more than Obama has, despite it having been Obama’s campaign slogan.

2) Obama has rarely mentioned the environment, but he included it in his inaugural address last month. Will he make that a key theme this year? (“Previewing Obama’s State of the Union address (in four infographics,” The Washington Post.)