When President Obama addresses Congress and the nation later this evening, he will have two major, often contradictory, goals. Tonight’s speech, officially about governing, is unofficially political. The President must use this State of the Union to begin making the case for reelection while at the same time set up a framework for governance that acknowledges the reality of a divided government. Here’s a preview of what to expect.
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Ultimately, Obama’s fate hinges on voter’s perceptions of the economy. Although there has been a rebound and we’re starting to see growth in the job market, the public perception is still pessimistic. Recent polls indicate that although voters are increasingly optimistic about their own personal finances, they remain less confident about the state of the economy as a whole. Obama needs to convert the positive personal outlook into a broader economic confidence. To do that he will tout administration accomplishments and Department of Labor numbers that support a broader economic recovery. But he has a tough needle to thread, because the millions of Americans still out of work don’t want to hear about how things are getting better while they struggle to find a job. The President also needs to acknowledge the large amount of work that still needs to be done.
To move forward, President Obama must work with a Republican House of Representatives and a divided Senate, still under the narrow control of Democrats. He is helped in this by a Republican majority that has some deep divisions. After the President is done speaking tonight, the Republican response will be delivered by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan. But there will be an additional, virtually unprecedented response, delivered by Rep. Michelle Bachman, representing the Tea Party caucus. This is emblematic of the difficult job that Speaker of the House Boehner will have over the next two years bringing together the various factions that make up today’s Republican party. Look for Obama to use tonight’s speech to paint himself as the reasonable moderate, willing to reach out to both sides of the aisle to find solutions. If he can set himself up as the sensible center, then it will be the Republicans, and particularly the Tea Party caucus, that feels the heat from the public to compromise.
Short term/long term
The president will emphasize a need to get America working again quickly, but he’s unlikely to stop there. Obama has dropped several hints that he plans to talk about long term job growth and economic infrastructure. Expect to hear lots of adjectives tonight like “creative”, “innovative” and “competitive”. He’ll say that rebuilding our economy for the long term will require additional investment in education so that we have a workforce able to compete in the high tech economy of the future. With new job listings rising faster than new hires and high tech companies commenting that they can’t find enough qualified candidates to fill the openings they have, Obama has ample reason to suggest that we need to refocus on American competitiveness. Bundled into this will be mention of high tech infrastructure projects like high speed rail and alternative energy sources.
Obama will also talk about the quality of the jobs of the future. It’s not enough to get everyone working again, we need to focus on jobs that will grow the economy, not just get people by. Expect to hear the President talk about jobs with good benefits, and use that as a segue way into defending the health care reform bill. Polls have shown that while individual components of the bill remain unpopular, a majority of voters oppose repeal, and the President can use this issue to paint the Republicans as obstructionists, out of touch with the will of the people.
Rally the base/recapture the center
As a political speech, the President needs to reinvigorate the people that put him in office. Support among the liberal base has eroded and the independents who overwhelmingly voted for him in 2008 have deserted him. He needs to bring both groups back into the flock. To rally the base, he’ll mention the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”. To recapture the center, he needs to return to what they liked about him as a candidate – a different kind of politics.
In the aftermath of the Tucson shooting which left one Congresswoman in the hospital and took the life of a federal judge along with several others including a 9 year old girl, Obama has made civility a major theme. Tonight will undoubtedly carry that forward. I expect an entire section of the speech to be devoted to reconciliation. The President will probably mention the large number of Senators and House members who have chosen to buck tradition and cross the aisle to sit together for the speech and remind us that even though our approaches to government may differ, our objectives are the same. In addition, he will probably pepper references to common ground and civility throughout the speech.
The Republican response will be delivered by Paul Ryan, Chairman of the House Budget committee. It is no accident that the Republicans are fielding an economic conservative to make their case. Ryan will not use the speech as an opportunity to attack the president directly, which would put Republicans on the wrong side of the civility issue. He will lay out the need for deep cuts in federal spending, which puts the Republicans in line with a majority of the country. But don’t expect to hear too many specifics – everyone wants less federal spending but nobody wants Congress to cut programs that benefit them.
Michelle Bachman, a darling of the Tea Party, will also deliver a response. She will be far less likely to moderate her tone or her criticisms of the current administration. Health care repeal, the debt ceiling, and deep cuts to taxes and spending will be her central themes. With recent indications from Tea Party organizers that everything is on the table, including defense spending, Bachman might be more willing to discuss specific cuts to the budget.