Final Obama State of the Union Speaks to Core Values of Planning

The final State of the Union address of the Obama presidency focused less on the usual list of policy proposals and instead sought to address the challenge of change for the country in today's world.

The speech was centered on four broad themes of economic opportunity, innovation, safety and leadership, and democratic engagement. President Obama made his case for the progress achieved during his tenure touting in particular job creation, economic growth, and energy policy. At the same time, the bulk of the speech was aimed at urging continued progress in the face of new challenges.

The address may not have touched directly on many areas of priority concern for planners, but it did speak powerfully to some of the core values and aspirational objectives of good planning.

Promoting Citizen Engagement, Social Equity, and Planning

The President's speech highlighted the importance of citizen engagement, social equity, access to opportunity, and the necessity of both vision and managing change. For President Obama, these values are essential for a vital and robust democracy. And, in each case, planning is a key way to promote these values in communities across the country. In speaking of the "daily acts of citizenship" where he sees "our future unfolding," Obama could have been talking about the hard, necessary work of planning happening in the nation's communities.

The State of the Union did feature an extended discussion of energy and climate policy. President Obama made the case for promoting clean energy and addressing climate change in an economic context and talked about "transitioning" the country to cleaner energy. This section of the speech also featured the only comment about transportation as he linked the savings from changing energy policy to investment in communities and "building a 21st century transportation system." More specifically, he appeared to suggest that federal policies take climate impact more fully into account in the management of fossil fuel extraction and that those associated revenues could be dedicated to more energy efficient transportation and infrastructure projects.

While the economic opportunity section of the speech did not detail specifics on built environment concerns like housing and community development, the President did note that he believed there was the potential for common ground with congressional Republicans on measures to lift people out of poverty. He also called out the need for policies to address what believes is driving on-going economic anxiety — issues such as income inequality, global competition and technology — even in the midst of recovery from the recession.

Obama Administration Prepares Budget Proposal

With the State of the Union now complete, Congress and the Obama administration will prepare in earnest for the annual budget and appropriations process.

The Office of Management and Budget announced that the administration's final budget proposal will be sent to Congress on February 9. With overall spending levels set by last year's budget agreement, it isn't clear whether Congress will formally adopt a new budget resolution, but leaders in the House and Senate currently plan on debating and approving individual spending bills. The budget proposal is likely to offer more programmatic details and specifics that build on the President's themes and rhetoric in the State of the Union.

The lofty themes of the State of the Union are a good reminder of how important the work of planning is to our democratic system and values. It can also serve as a catalyst for all of us to raise our voice as advocates for this essential work of leading change in our communities and helping create places that are stronger, healthier, and more just for all Americans.

Top image: The State of the Union address, 2013. Photo courtesy Obama White House Archives.

About the Author
Jason Jordan is APA's Director of Policy and Government Affairs.

March 20, 2016

By Jason Jordan