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What State Is Our Union In, Anyway?

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Tonight President Obama will deliver his first State of the Union Address. This country is obviously in a far sourer mood than it was a year ago. The latest  polling data (well, latest worth reading) from Democracy Corps, for example, is summarized as "The Economic Crisis and Populist Revolt at a Boiling Point." But from my perspective, I think that the president faces an angry country that's also very confused about where to focus that anger.

Congressional Democrats are in big trouble, but the Republicans are equally unpopular. President Obama himself is not as much in the crosshairs, but people do think the country is headed in the wrong direction. This is exemplified by the failure to do enough about unemployment, the bank bailouts, and the return of billion-dollar bonuses. Underneath it all is the mortgage crisis, but the polls don't suggest that the public has focused on that as a specific problem.

Gridlock in the Senate has cast a pall over everything. Focus groups repeatedly show that the public is enormously concerned about our continued dependence on imported oil. Since oil-price increases in the past few months have sucked as much momentum out of the economy as the stimulus was able to put in, I'd say the public's concern is warranted.

So what should people be angry about?

Let's start with the bailouts. The worst, by far, was AIG -- but that happened under Bush. President Obama's actual bank investments seem likely to make money -- but almost no one has noticed. The investment in General Motors is looking better than anyone could have expected -- Chrysler is admittedly very dicey. But the GM and Chrysler investments were for blue-collar America, not for the corporate boardrooms. And although true banking reform has not yet happened, the recent signals from the administration about restoring the Glass-Steagall firewalls and limiting leverage, if adopted, would be an incredible step forward.

Jobs. The initial stimulus was watered-down in an effort to resuscitate bipartisanship. That hurt heavily, but the public response has not been to blame the Republicans but  to ask for more bipartisanship. And there is a tendency among the President's advisers to come up with jobs ideas that are simply too small. We aren't yet getting the leverage we need from public investments. In 2009 it was reasonable to say "we need to go with what is ready," but those funds ought to be reprogrammed in 2010 so that they deliver much more bang for the buck.

Mortgages. Here I think the administration's efforts have been woefully inadequate, and there's little evidence that anything meaningful is in the works.

Energy security. The administration has done a stunning job of turning around the Executive Branch, the House has acted responsibly, and the Senate has bogged down completely. Health care was intrinsically hard. In comparison, energy should have been by relatively easy, but the White House has not figured out how to hold the feet of either Senate Republicans or recalcitrant Democrats to the fire. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel needs to move beyond lamenting the Senate as a Constitutional mistake and develop a strategy for combining the leverage of the White House with the substantial Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate to govern.

Overall, I'd argue that the administration has done a much better job on the policy side than on the political. Back in September, Jean Edward Smith published an extremely insightful op-ed in the New York Times, saying that Obama needed to understand that Franklin Roosevelt succeeded because he was a divider as well as a uniter. Roosevelt understood that "governing involved choice and that choice engendered dissent. He accepted opposition as part of the process." It's not yet clear that this administration has absorbed that message -- and that's what I'll be looking for in tonight's State of Union address. Will President Obama start telling the story?

If he doesn't, things will likely get much, much worse. The Supreme Court, in its outrageous decision that corporations can now spend unlimited money to influence elections and that they have all the rights and none of the responsibilities of citizens, has enabled the entrenched interests -- whether banks or oil companies -- to send a chilling message to Congress: "Don't mess with our privileges." And unless President Obama can use his "bully pulpit" to make Congress act and to hold the minority accountable, it's going to be very difficult for him to pass his policy initiatives -- whether for energy and climate, for health care, or for banking reform.

President Obama will be taking questions about his address via a special YouTube channel and then answering them via a webcast next week. What would you want to ask him? Share your question (or other thoughts about the President's speech) in the State of the Union group at Climate Crossroads.