Rarely has a president delivered a State of the Union Address from such a suddenly encouraging position as President Obama will find himself in Tuesday night.
After suffering severe political setbacks in the 2010 election, Obama triangulated himself out of the year by taking the tax-policy debate off the table—embracing Republican proposals on rates for the rich and estates but getting enough on the side to earn generally high marks from economic pundits. Then, after a gunman shot Arizona Congressman Gabrielle Giffords and killed a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, Obama delivered a pitch-perfect response that renewed the sense that he really is a great communicator in the tradition of former President Ronald Reagan.
New polling from CNN puts Obama’s approval rating at 55 percent, higher than at any point in the past year and a half. At the same time, disapproval ratings for congressional Republicans are on then rise.
“The 55 percent figure is seven points higher than in December and 13 points higher than his September mark,” notes CNN polling director Keating Holland. And Obama is not just surging with Democrats; independent voters, who swung hard against the president’s party last November, now give him a 54 percent approval rating.
Those are muscular numbers, and the White House is betting that they can bump them up higher by addressing lingering concerns over his handling of the economy. Most Americans still disapprove of Obama’s approach to a host of economic issues, ranging from job creation to deficit reduction.
The White House is betting that a speech that presents a job-creation agenda will position Obama precisely right for the 2012 reelection campaign that—whether anyone wants to admit it or not—begins with this State of the Union Address.
Obama aides are so confident about the speech that they were releasing "Inside the White House" promotional videos and slide-shows about its preparation Tuesday morning.
They were, as well, signaling where the emotional high point would come: with an announcement that Daniel Hernandez, the intern who rushed to the aid of Giffords after she was shot, will be hailed as a hero. The family of the 9-year-old girl who was killed in the shooting, Christina Taylor Green, will sit with First Lady Michelle Obama. If the president is going to have a “courage” moment it will likely come here, with a reference to the sensible gun-control proposals he’s been urged to embrace by big-city mayors.
By and large, however, this will not be a risky speech.
Obama’s State of the Union wordplay will be graceful and inspiring, but it will have a precise political purpose: to position him as a “One Nation” president who rises above the partisan wrangling and unites the country toward a common purpose.
But what will that purpose be? What policies will the president outline?
These become essential questions, as Obama is clearly positioning himself for not unrelated 2011 legislative battles and a 2012 reelection campaign.
He’ll make the by-now-standard mentions of budget freezes and earmark bans, which sound good in headlines but never come to fruition.
But what will his enonomic thrust and focus be?
Here are some core questions with regard to Obama’s speech:
1. What will he say about Social Security?
Best bet: the president defends the program and eschews an embrace of the recommendations of his deficit commission co-chairs. Protecting Social Security polls a lot better than deficit reduction, and any bow to proposals to cut the program would divide his party—a reality driven home in recent days by the aggressive pro–Social Security campaigning by unions, religious groups and progressive members of the House and Senate.
2. Will Obama formally remake himself as a Clintonesque free-trader?
Unfortunately, the answer is probably “yes.”
During the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, Obama got an advantage on Hillary Clinton by mouthing fair-trade rhetoric that suggested an Obama administration would do more than the Clinton and Bush administrations to protect American jobs and industries. But indications in recent months have been that he is moving strongly toward the free-trade stance so favored by Wall Street and multinational corporations. An aggressive embrace of simplistic free-trade dogmas—focused initially on enactment of a new agreement with South Korea — is likely to be included in Tuesday’s speech. That will be another slap at organized labor from a president who, despite his campaign trail rhetoric, has never seemed to “get” the trade debate.
3. Will Obama’s “targeted investments” be better focused than the 2009 stimulus?
The administration’s compromises on stimulus spending in 2009 slowed job creation because investment in infrastructure development was cheated in order to fund tax cuts. Obama will announce some “targeted investments” Tuesday night. The key question is whether they will fund genuine job creation or more tax breaks for corporations. This is a critical issues, especially for the long-term unemployed.
4. Will Obama recognize the need to provide support for cash-strapped states?
The 2009 stimulus measure kept state and local governments afloat, but just barely. Many of the nation’s largest states are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. That instability threatens economic renewal. Despite vocal opposition from Congressional Republicans (if not, perhaps, from all Republican governors), the president needs to signal that the federal government has a plan to help the states, perhaps by with additional education and green-jobs funding.
5. How green is my country?
The Obama administration’s most serious commitment to developing a twenty-first-century economy has been in the area of green-jobs creation. But these programs are only beginning to come online.
The president should place a strong emphasis on green jobs in this speech, and he probably will. But he also needs to signal that he understands the green-jobs challenge, which is that: developing new technologies and applications does not necessarily create jobs in the United States. For the initiatives to which the president is committing so many billions to work, there needs to be a green-jobs industrial policy, which assures that investment leads to actual job creation.