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Obama's SOTU Test: Will He Be a Manager or a Leader? | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Obama's SOTU Test: Will He Be a Manager or a Leader?

A new president gets a full year to prepare his initial State of the Union address.

That is a blessing and a curse.

An immediate address, given a week or two after the inaugural, would offer an opportunity to subtly blame everything on an inept, evil or crooked predecessor.

An address delivered after a full year in office does not afford such an opportunity.

There is no alternative for the sitting president but to describe the state of the union under his watch.

This will be Barack Obama's circumstance tonight, as he delivers the first of what he and his aides hope will be seven State of the Union addresses.

Obama will, of course, find much to celebrate. Presidents always do, as they play the political game of linking their service with all that is good, decent and appealing in the land -- think Ronald Reagan's "morning in America..."

But when all is said and done, Obama will have to face the fact that the American people, by now overwhelming majorities according to the polls -- think the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Facing a fierce opposition, fearful allies and a frustrated electorate that has not seen enough "change" and is running out of "hope," Obama must offer a great deal more than rhetoric tonight.

The president blew the run-up to the speech by veering left, with populist bashing of banks, and then right, with talk of a domestic spending freeze, in a manner that made him seem reactionary rather than realistic. After the loss of the Massachusetts Senate seat of his liberal mentor, Edward Kennedy, and with it the 60-seat majority that gave his party a measure of congressional dominance, Obama seemed desperate and uncertain.

That's dangerous politically.

More than any specific policy (a little less health care) or theme (a little more fiscal responsibility) tonight, Obama must project a coherent sense of himself. The candidate who so many Americans were able to imagine as their political ideal is now a president who conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, and above all independents, see as less than that ideal.

Obama cannot and will not satisfy everyone tonight. And he should not try.

Rather, he must define himself and his vision. After a year of serving as a punching bag for the right and a source of frustration for the left, he has to talk about what he wants to do now.

An attempt to balance competing interests, an imagining of some bipartisan possibility that has somehow eluded him, a Clinton-esque triangulation, will muddy his message.

Tinkering will be seen as tinkering.

If Obama is not bold, clear and more aggressively progressive than he has ever been -- especially on job creation but, more importantly, on reaserting a vision of government as an essential force for good -- his speech will be meaningless exercise.

If the president bogs down in blather about deficits and balanced budgets -- employing the language of managers rather than leaders -- he will miss a rare opportunity to change the debate.

If he comes on strong, promising to invest in jobs and pay for the project not with new taxes on working Americans but with accountability taxes on banks and speculators -- he will of course engage his critics. But they live in a state of perpetual rage.

The president's job tonight is to excite his base and give wavering independents a clear sense of where he is headed.

The president's job tonight is not to outline the State of the Union in any formal sense.

The State of the Union is not good -- or, at the very least, not good enough.

The president must explain exactly what he is going to do to -- dare we employ the word -- change that state for the better.

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