Just as whether the groundhog sees his shadow is thought to forecast whether spring will be over the horizon, so too will the outcome to a select set of questions about the upcoming State of the Union Address (SOTU) determine whether it will soon be springtime in America or whether we must suffer through a prolonged season of dark and gloomy gridlock. The speech that President Barack Obama delivers on Tuesday will likely be the most important one of his second term and will be pivotal in deciding his legacy. The president must focus on what he realistically hopes to accomplish during the coming year, the most opportune time for him to make his mark in his final term. The questions his Tuesday night appearance will answer include:
1) Campaigning or Legislating Speech? Realistically a president can only advance a limited agenda before lame duck status kicks in. If that agenda is focused on a few priority items, there is an increased likelihood that it will actually be passed into law. If the SOTU puts every issue that any portion of the president's campaign coalition would want in play and Obama diffuses his political capital across the waterfront, there is a reduced likelihood that any one initiative will result in meaningful legislation.
With his final campaign behind him and his legacy in front of him, it would seem advisable to focus on the priority accomplishments he most hopes to achieve.
2) Combative or Collaborative? President Obama entered the national public stage as a post-partisan candidate decrying distinctions and urging unity. His second inaugural address was a deep shade of blue, showing little interest in accommodating the views of the other party. Having made such a pivot in the inaugural, does he backtrack towards collaboration or stay on the "taking on all comers" path set at the beginning of the year?
Bill Clinton found success in leveraging public support by reaching towards the middle ground, co-opting the Republicans on their own turf. Ronald Reagan's legislative successes rested on the fact that he had an agenda that was very limited in scope and easily understandable. If President Obama chooses to reach out to the people to force Congressional action, he would be wise to follow both examples.
3) Ignoring or Confronting the Looming Fiscal Crisis? In his inaugural address, the president gave short shrift to the need to reduce the nation's deficit and debt. He appeared to side with those who believe that enough had been done already. While the administration has commented since on the need for fiscal action, to date it has not risen above the level of lip service and posturing, despite the public's desire to hear more.
Fiscal constraint is to Democrats what immigration is to Republicans. Both may be able to ignore the elephant in the room without dire consequences in the next election. However, inaction on either will be viewed in a decade hence as a grave dereliction of duty.
President Reagan's first term successes of cutting taxes and rebuilding America's military strength were left open to question by his inability to enact serious deficit reduction in his second term. In a similar manner, inaction by President Obama to truly address the cost of healthcare in his second term will cloud his signature first term achievement.
To secure his legacy, President Obama should meaningfully address the nation's fiscal condition with the prime focus being on healthcare costs.
The first option in each of these three choices is the gloomy side leading to prolonged contention and inaction. Let us hope that our President will send the signal that brighter days are soon before us.
Hon. Mark R. Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).