News & Politics

Statehood Activists Don’t Have Much Hope for a State of the Union Mention

Even though President Obama has nothing to lose politically, don't count on him sticking up for DC tonight.

Photograph by Ted Eytan.

One of the District’s most energetic statehood activists admits he does’t have much hope President Obama will respond to pleas to make even a slightest mention of DC’s second-class status during tonight’s State of the Union address.

“He’s sold us out repeatedly when it counts,” says Josh Burch, who created a petition on the White House’s website urging the president to give the statehood cause just a bit of lip service during his speech to Congress. “Every single time there’s been a budget rider, he’s turned his back on us. I think it would liven up the statehood movement if he speaks out for us.”

At least on a personal level, Obama supports the notion of the District being elevated to a state, as he mentioned during an appearance last July at the at the Walker-Jones Education Campus in Northwest. But his executive actions show a record of official indifference toward DC.

To locals, Obama’s best-known quote is perhaps “John, I will give you DC abortion,” which he uttered to House Speaker John Boehner in April 2011 when Republicans insisted on including in a federal spending bill language that banned the city from funding abortions for low-income women. And last year, despite threatening to veto an appropriations bill blocking the District’s marijuana decriminalization law (that never made it to his desk), Obama signed off on a funding bill that includes an amendment aimed at stopping the District’s pot legalization referendum.

Threatening to shut down the government over one city’s self-determination is an unlikely hill for any president to die on, but the State of the Union offers a different kind of platform. The Walker-Jones appearance was followed only in local media, and omnibus spending bills are too granular and wonky for mass consumption. But a State of the Union speech gives the president his biggest television audience of the year. An average of 42.3 million people have watched the address over the past two decades, and the speech is almost always followed by some kind of national tour promoting its content.

“He’s willing to go around the country and talk about immigration and wars overseas, but why can’t you can’t go around America and talk about the unfuliflled promise in the neighborhood around the Capitol?” Burch says.

The White House’s defenders will point to the fact that the presidential limousines roll around with DC-issued license plates that read “taxation without representation,” but Burch says there’s not much value in the tags. “That’s like a pat on the head and saying good job,” he says. “We need fighters in this.”

Burch’s online petition has stalled, too, with just 1,323 signatures. While that’s more than twice as many as are on the petition seeking a national day of appreciation for the Flash, it’s far short of the 100,000 needed for an official response.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton is also trying to sway Obama to press statehood during tonight’s speech, inviting DC Mayor Muriel Bowser to sit in the gallery. But the DC resident scheduled to attend who is most likely to get a presidential mention doesn’t work at the John A. Wilson Building. It’s Alan Gross, the telecommunications worker who spent five years in a Cuban jail and was released last month when the White House announced a normalization of relations with the island nation. Cuba is more likely to come up than DC statehood, as are immigration reform, free community college, climate change, internet surveillance, to name just a few issues.

History suggests it might not be utterly hopeless though. The last president to mention the District’s rights during a State of the Union was Lyndon B. Johnson, who argued for legislative home rule in 1966, when DC was still an enclave ruled directly by Congress. Eight years later, DC residents started electing their own mayor and Council members.

Johnson said that when he had friendly majorities in both houses. Obama goes into tonight’s speech facing bicameral hostility. But if there’s a sliver of hope for activists like Burch, it’s that Obama is a lame duck who no longer has to try to protect any congressional majorities. It’s still a long shot, though.

“This president, with nothing left to lose, it’s going to be really disappointing to have him turn his back on the city where he lives, if he doesn’t say it,” Burch says. “I’m a cynical optimist.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.