Leading up to Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, advocates for prison reform expected the president to speak with purpose and conviction about the need for criminal justice reform. Based on the invite list—which included Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy and an ex-convict-turned-prison-reformer named Susan Ellen Allen—and the heap of attention that Obama paid to the prison system last summer, it seemed like a good bet that he would go into some detail about the changes he wanted to see to the way the country deals with crime and punishment.
But as soon as the prepared text of Obama’s speech was published online a few minutes before he took the stage, it was clear that the president had decided to leave criminal justice almost entirely out of Tuesday night’s address.
Besides the reference he made to the issue at the very beginning—in which he used justice reform as an example of a bipartisan effort he hopes Democrats and Republicans can work on together during the coming year—Obama brought up the criminal justice system just once, gesturing somewhat obliquely at the end of the speech to his belief that employers should not reject applicants based solely on their criminal record. (In a reference to the national debate over police use of force, he also gave a shoutout to “the protester determined to prove that justice matters” and “the young cop walking the beat, treating everybody with respect, doing the brave, quiet work of keeping us safe.”)
While reform advocates might take solace in the fact that criminal justice came up mere seconds into Obama’s remarks, it still got barely any airtime. Some experts in the field are speculating that it’s a strategic move—that Obama doesn’t want to associate himself too closely with the ongoing efforts to push a criminal justice bill through Congress, lest it scare off Republicans who would rather not be seen supporting his agenda. There’s also an argument to be made that, given the federal government’s relatively limited ability to make a dent on what is fundamentally a state issue, it’s only appropriate that the president prioritize other topics.
Important context for Tuesday night’s speech is an informal summer deadline haunting the proposed criminal justice legislation that’s been working its way through Congress in recent months. And while some lawmakers are expressing optimism that a bill will reach Obama’s desk in time, advocates are worried that the moment will pass. Tuesday night, Obama elected not to use his bully pulpit to move the ball forward tonight. Depending on where that ball lands, this speech could end up looking like a turning point.