State of the Union: What Is Wanted/Expected?

JESSICA BADER: As we gear up for Barack Obama’s first official State of the Union address (the speech he gave to a joint session of Congress around this time a year ago wasn’t technically a SotU as it came so soon after his inauguration), one of the major legislative priorities of his first year in office hangs in limbo.

While on some level I’d love for Obama to devote a significant portion of the speech to guiding the American public through the procedural state of healthcare reform (the House and Senate have each passed their own bill, the House can vote on the Senate bill at any time and should do so as soon as Nancy Pelosi rounds up 218 votes, and many of the changes that would have been part of a House-Senate compromise bill had the Democrats held on to their 60th Senate seat have budgetary impact and can be dealt with through a separate budget reconciliation bill that would not be subject to the filibuster), I realize that he probably isn’t going to do that (the speech does have to appeal to the vast majority of the population that doesn’t list reading Ezra Klein’s blog as one of their favorite leisure activities, after all) and that in any event, he probably shouldn’t.

(I suspect that the big stumbling block to the most obvious – and perhaps only – strategy for passing healthcare reform without a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate is less ideological than it is institutional, with many House Democrats not entirely trusting the Senate to hold up its end of the bargain by passing fixes to the bill through the reconciliation process if the House agrees to pass the Senate bill, and having a former Senator who never served in the House use the SotU to tell them what to do might backfire.)

That is not at all to say that Obama should avoid discussing healthcare. I’m hoping to see him point to specific things that the Senate bill will do that many Americans are not aware of, and to explain why some of the strategies bandied about in the immediate aftermath of Scott Brown’s election – having both houses pass some scaled-down version of reform, breaking the bill into chunks and only passing the most popular parts – just won’t work.

This is something that is right in Obama’s wheelhouse – last year’s quasi-SotU featured a strong explanation of the interconnected nature of the major planks of his agenda (healthcare, clean energy, education), and his remarks on healthcare reform over the past week have included a discussion of why banning pre-existing condition exclusions alone won’t cut it.

I’d also imagine that the President’s meeting with the Middle Class Task Force on Monday was something of a preview of programs he’ll be rolling out during the SotU – programs that aren’t as sweeping as healthcare reform but that will have an easily explainable positive impact on one’s everyday life.

One thing I’m really hoping Obama does not do is announce a spending freeze or some other form of austerity budgeting , especially when he should really be explaining that a recession is not the time for the government to be “tightening its belt like ordinary Americans are” unless the goal is to relearn the lessons of 1937. The American people are capable of understanding the concept of countercyclical budget measures and the need to run deficits in the short term to promote long-term recovery if someone bothers to walk them through it rather than pursue suboptimal policy choices in an attempt to satisfy the budget hawks.

CHRIS PUMMER: Barack Obama can say whatever he wants in the SOTU address on Wednesday. The key is simply to be aggressive in laying out his agenda.

This means displaying some of the salesmanship to the American public that was missing from the health care reform debate last year. It will be critical in blunting backlash when the likely outcome occurs — and that is the House of Representatives passing the Senate version of the bill and making additional changes through reconciliation.

Being aggressive will also mean strongly advancing the populist portions of his agenda that will become the focus of the spring and summer as Democrats prepare for tough battle in November that they are poised to lose, but can perhaps limit the bleeding. That means talking big when it comes to creating jobs and sounding the horn loudly on regulating the financial sector.

But perhaps the most important reason to be aggressive is to beat back the narrative taking hold in the media that his administration has been rebuked by electoral losses in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia.

The Obama presidency is not broken, but to come before the American people while striking an overly humble tone tone will only reinforce the perception that it is. It will unnerve his liberal base of support. And it will validate comments like Jim DeMint’s from last year when he said health care reform would be Obama’s Waterloo.

We are continually reminded of George W. Bush’s political legacy. Beyond the policy disasters, there was the practical lesson that the public prefers the president to exude strength and confidence.

That’s not to say all other errors can be forgiven. But demonstrating the resolve to continue pushing for your beliefs not only convinces the public the president has strength of character. It also reassures people that the man in charge believes the nation is on the right course, even if the road right now seems bumpy.

That’s what Obama has to do on Wednesday.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Regardless of his tone or specific policy proposals beyond it, Barack Obama can only succeed in putting his party in position to at least minimize losses if he is seen as finally battling Wall Street. There is no other path to victory in 2010.

This is actually a golden opportunity for Obama, despite a wasted 2009 with much of the good will he had in 2008 squandered by every Tim Geithner public appearance. But while health care is important for 2010 politically and for years beyond, policy-wise, if Obama is not seen battling Wall Street’s excesses, Americans will continue to turn their backs on both him and his party.

The reason this political high ground is still available is that in this binary system, the only other party that can grab it is the Republican Party-and the way that party is structured, there simply isn’t room for a politics that is anti-Wall Street. Such politics will call for more regulation and more oversight- and any politician with a GOP label who calls for this will split the GOP.

That is not to say Obama has a free ride on this- if he fails to grab this mantle, the GOP will pound him on this and many other issues. Absent the Wall Street issue becoming a Democratic one, all incumbents will suffer- and that is, disproportionately, Democrats in the House and Senate right now.

But if the President follows up on his proposals from last week and rhetoric from Friday, he can paint the battle as White House vs. Wall Street every day from now until November. And if the Republicans stand in the way of the man battling Wall Street, GOP obstructionism will cease to be a winning issue.

So everything else aside, Obama needs to seize that mantle Wednesday night. If the lead isn’t about Obama throwing down the gauntlet against Wall Street, he lost the night.

JEFF MORROW: Obama excels at back-against-the-wall speeches. He excels at speechmaking, generally, but has really mastered the art of communicating inspiration and vigor when we would expect him to be battered and scuffed. Because we know that, though, it won’t be enough.

My colleagues astutely lay out hypothetical contents of State of the Union addresses that the viewing public would or would not enjoy, but the real question that needs to be addressed cannot be: Does the public still have faith in Barack Obama, his party, and their ability to govern?

The first year of Obama’s presidency, in the public consciousness, has been defined in large part by a polarizing health care debate—one that seems to have driven at least some people to the literal brink of madness, and has featured missed deadline after missed deadline, only to now be faced with the prospect of returning to the drawing board. Thus, the lingering question is not about the specifics of health care or the ambitious goals for the next year, but if, once the microphones are off, Obama and the Democrats can actually make things happen.

That’s not something he’ll be able to demonstrate before a joint session of Congress or through aggressive detailing of his agenda. Content matters insofar as people want to feel like there is, ultimately, a plan. But no one doubts Obama’s ability to make plans and to communicate them. Its his ability to see them enacted  where people need reassurance.

To be fair, some genuine accomplishments have been overlooked, and Wednesday night may provide Obama with the chance to note the ways in which he has governed, and done so effectively. The economy, though shaky, shows signs of recovery. The stimulus has, in fact, created jobs. But in the end, Obama’s biggest accomplishments involved keeping terrible things from happening, a counter-factual that will be vexing to demonstrate. Those who support the President already believe his policies have prevented disaster, and those who oppose him will never be convinced.

So, yes, a rousing speech with an aggressive agenda is great. A positive news cycle would do wonders for morale. But if the next week begins with unsuccessful attempts to find a 60th vote on health care, followed by a week of loud and public debate over whether to pass the Senate bill in the House, followed by a statement that some kind of health bill will be finalized by Valentine’s Day, followed by a Valentine’s Day with no bill… and so on… the benefits of the State of the Union will have been short-lived.

Obama needs Wednesday to go well. But he needs Thursday to go even better.

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