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Howard Fineman Headshot

The State Of The President And The American State Of Mind

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WASHINGTON -- State of the Union speeches are not about the state of the union. They are about the state of the president. More specifically, they are "state of mind" speeches, in which the president reveals what he thinks the country is thinking.

People here in Washington will focus on the sketchy budget numbers he reveals or on the seating arrangement on the floor of the House -- or on budget freezes and debt numbers and troop levels.

But the speech is a tight-shot focus on the president in his role as a leader, inspirer, explainer, lightning rod, antagonist and storyteller.

It's clear from the leaks and the briefs that President Barack Obama thinks the American people -- still worried about their jobs, their mortgages and keeping their heads above water -- want to hear reasons why, against evidence, they should be optimistic.

Think of this speech as Hope 2.0 -- at least, President Obama hopes you do.

The president will argue that budget cuts are necessary, but that only new investments in research, education and infrastructure will guarantee the nation's long-term economic future. Republicans will argue that only a drastic reduction in the size of government -- we'll see if they are willing to be specific -- will guarantee that prosperity.

Last year, the word "jobs" was the most-mentioned term. This year, it's going to be "future": what we need to do as a country to innovate, invest and educate our way to a better day. Obama will couple that with a preemptive five-year freeze on domestic, non-security spending. It's a preemptive move against his Republican foes.

Critics might well say that the president is conveniently changing the subject at a time when the unemployment rate remains above 9 percent, mortgage foreclosures still threaten millions of homeowners, and average folks aren't joining investors in sharing in the profits of whatever recovery there has been thus far.

As he often does, Obama is dealing with a political challenge by broadening the debate. When challenged in 2008 by the rhetorical excesses of his preacher, Obama won the day by widening his focus to talk about the role of race in American life. His narrow goal was to distance himself from the preacher, but it all sounded so much more important than that in the context of his speech.

In this case, he is enlarging the focus from the raw unemployment numbers to the economic prospects of the next generation.

That's a debate he thinks he can win -- and he thinks that those long-range issues are at the heart of the pessimism still evident in the polls.

"He wants to tell the story of how we make sure that the next generation can live the American dream as others have," an adviser said.

Setting such a goal has the additional political virtue of not being reachable, or knowable, until well after the president leaves office.

But we'll know much sooner whether he was really talking about what matters most to the voters -- or just talking to himself. That's how we really measure the American state of mind.

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