With an unemployment rate of 9.4% and an economy still perceived as dragging, President Barack Obama will have little choice but to focus his State of the Union address on "jobs, jobs and jobs" as a central theme of every policy message, grand announcement or administration proposal put forward on Tuesday night. An anxious public tuning in will want to hear what, specifically, the president has in mind for further pulling the country out of its current economic morass.
There are, first, rhetorical challenges ahead for the president. Observers will predictably compare the tone and style of this State of the Union to the emotional, tear-jerking flourish given at the University of Arizona less than two weeks ago. Pressure mounts, for a number of political reasons, as many set unrealistic expectations for a repeat of that moment. Considered one of Obama's strongest speeches ever -- if not his best -- a jittery public could be yearning for the same level of seriousness and decisive look they got in the aftermath of the Tuscon shooting tragedy. State of the Unions, nicknamed "SOTU" by media parlance, are typically sobering policy wonk affairs that draw little in terms of mainstream network ratings, despite their eyeball pull for cable news networks. It's not considered a Super Bowl moment or a half-time show attraction by any stretch.
But, given the high economic stakes and a new political environment dominated by demanding Tea Party Republicans, the president will have to set a new standard and higher pitch for his 2011 SOTU address. Can he effectively combine salient policy messaging with soul-stirring rhetoric, perhaps making a return to the prose of his 2008 campaign? Or will he allow himself to be locked within the confines of a traditional SOTU, a just-another-speech before a joint session of Congress delivery that will have few people talking about it beyond Tuesday night post-mortem?
At the moment, the president is in a political comfort zone with approval ratings in three or more polls finding him well above 50%. It's a surprise for a president who described himself as taking a "shellacking" from Republicans only a few months ago and faced with the prospect of a fiery political insurgency on Capitol Hill with the arrival of 87 new Republicans. Hence, there is a danger that he could fall into SOTU complacency and see it as a moment where he simply gets it done and heads out of the House chamber.
There is an opportunity, however, for the president to continue his connection to the public through the presentation of policy platitudes. It all depends on how he crafts his words and shapes his tone. Will he opt for a professorial lecture that will drag on for an hour? Or, will he go for populist appeal, presenting the great policy challenges of the day in a fashion that is as plainspoken as it is pedagogic? There is no doubt he can articulate the problems since we're all living what's happening now -- but, can he passionately articulate a solution-based vision that the layman can understand and embrace?
"I will talk to the nation about how we can win the future by out-innovating, out-educating, and out-building the rest of the world," the president said in remarks this past weekend. "By dealing with our deficits and our debt in a responsible way, and reforming government so that it's leaner and smarter for the 21st century. How we continue to keep America safe and advance our interests around the world."
While using the SOTU to spar with skeptical Republicans who do not want to hear about new spending priorities, the president will have to find a way to sell his version of governance that can balance the needs of those hurting with the adamant demands of those warning of imminent collapse. More than likely, we will hear the President speak of shared sacrifice in reaching that point -- a risky proposition that many jobless Americans may not want to hear. But, he could reach for a higher goal and somewhat unscripted departure from convention and present what POLITICO's Michael Kinsley called a "new mission statement" for government.
We've watched Obama struggle with this for the past two years of his presidency, attempting to reshape the vision of how government operates and thinks against the backdrop of a political climate that is perceived as unreasonably anti-government. In the debate over the debt and draconian spending cuts, White House and Congress will need to dramatically alter what they think government should be doing. There is a fundamental shift occurring in how both lawmakers and constituents view their government. This could be the president's opportunity to get a head start on those impressions by using the SOTU as much more than a yearly address to Congress and, instead, introduce a forceful, yet pragmatic and workable philosophy on empathetic governance in the new century.
(originally appeared in Politic365.com)