It's the Super Bowl of politics - the SOTU is watched in some years by up to 60 million people, and it's usually the President's best opportunity to address the country, tell them his plan, and bolster his approval.
What could have been a rather sleepy affair has taken on new significance with the loss of the Massachusetts Senate race - it has added dramatic tension and probably 10 million more viewers. How will the president handle the Mass. defeat? What will he say about healthcare? Is he moving to the center?
President Bush generally got little out of his State of the Union addresses. President Clinton did best in 1996 and 1998 -- one against the backdrop of the Gingrich government shutdown and the other at the start of the Monica Lewinsky revelations. Clinton successfully pushed back on his critics and reassured the nation in those two pivotal speeches.
President Obama now has to do the same.
But perhaps the biggest questions around President Obama are exactly which course is he taking on so many critical issues - I think the choices he makes will determine the success of the speech and perhaps even of his presidency. So let's go through his choices.
Wall Street vs. Main Street - The first year was spent propping Wall Street up. As the president tells it, the bankers are the bad guys now - unchanged and unbowed in his view. No question he has chosen to go after them hard, but it raises questions about his credibility and policies for the last year if he is seen as going overboard. Smart move would be to make it not just about bankers but about the need for smarter regulation to protect the small investor - in the common interest
Populism vs. Middle Class - Is the President raising taxes on the wealthy or is he bringing people together around new tax breaks for the middle class? The tone here is critical. In 1996, President Clinton eliminated almost all the class warfare language - while it might prove popular in the moment, he understood it divides rather than unites the country. I think President Obama is tilting populist, and taken too far it could be the rhetorical mistake of his presidency. President Obama got unprecedented numbers of well-educated and well-healed voters supporting him in 2008 on the basis that he would lead us away from class warfare and to a new spirit of common ground as a nation. He needs to rekindle that call.
Deficit Fighter or Stimulus Seeker - He has to choose. His signature policy of the first year was the $787 billion stimulus but the last few days his administration floated a discretionary spending freeze worth just $250 million. First and foremost he has to clear up exactly what he proposes to do to create jobs in the country and clarify the message based on what he and the economic team believes is right.
Global Economy vs. Protectionism - President Clinton rallied the country to compete and win in the new global economy despite what he saw as inevitable dislocations. Will the president go after China in the speech and fan anti-China sentiment or will he talk about the need to work together to succeed in the global economy? My bet is he goes after China.
Healthcare: Big or Small - This one has already been answered by the Massachusetts election and members of Congress - what was a sure thing a few weeks ago appears DOA now. But can the president pick out a few key strands like ending discrimination on pre-existing conditions and get those through? That would be the smart move until he extends his economic credibility with job growth.
Sending Troops or Bringing Them Home - Obama started his campaign as the president who would bring home the troops from Iraq. Now he is sending 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan, and Iraq is flaring up. Don't expect a lot about these conflicts in this State of the Union as he knows he has to focus on the voters back home - likely he will give strong support to the troops rather than re-litigate these policies.
Iran and Nukes - there is no further talk of having Iranian President Ahmadinejad at the White House. Iran is getting closer to getting nukes, so now is a time for the President to turn tougher on them, North Korea and terrorism - I expect him to be much tougher than we have seen him on these issues.
Thinking Big or Hitting the Microtrends - The big programs like the stimulus and healthcare have worried people. So expect that the President to turn to more concrete programs that affect people's everyday lives. Whether it is student loans or texting while driving, you are likely to hear much more of these bite-sized programs that reflect his values.
Democratic-Centered or More Bipartisan - The president is under pressure to reduce partisanship and, and he will likely highlight the bipartisan fiscal responsibility panel as an example of how he is bringing new ways to Washington. He needs to show that it's the Democrats who have reached out.
These are just some of the choices the president is going to have to get right. A good State of the Union is worked over line by line so that every constituency from unions to all major ethnic communities have their applause lines, and this one will be no different. It will also highlight how economic disaster was averted.
Of all these choices, though, the two most important revolve around what he is going to do about the growing and unprecedented deficits and whether he is going to stir up populist fears as a way to channel voter anger on the Republicans. The voters are -- at heart -- worried about their economic future. And it is easy to characterize these voters as simply "angry" and try to direct their anger towards the banks or to the Republicans instead of the administration. But it is convenient for the extremes on the left and the right to blame it all on voter anger - minimizing the voters and offering Tea Parties and Populism as the answers. In fact there are a lot of rational voters out there who have healthcare they don't want tampered with, who want common sense solutions to our problems that put country before party, and who want to see a new strategy for jobs creation. They will be watching to see if they have been heard and looking to see if their concerns are front and center in the President's agenda. And that will be the ultimate scorecard for this State of the Union.
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