What Barack Obama is going to deliver to Congress tonight is not — repeat not — a State of the Union address.
But the president will make it sound like one.
Obama will use the “bully pulpit” of a nationally televised primetime address to the House, the Senate and the nation to sell not so much a specific plan as an understanding of the moment we are in — and of how we might get out of it.
This is a smart, and essential, move on Obama’s part.
Americans are deeply worried about the state of the union, specifically the economy.
They are looking to their president to lead them out of the thicket in which George Bush left the country when the 43rd president exited the White House barely a month ago.
Obama has the confidence of the American people — 63 percent of whom approve of how he is running the country, according to a fresh New York Times/CBS News poll — and he also has something else: their understanding that repairing a broken economy will not be easy work.
According to the Times/CBS survey, roughly half of all Americans surveyed express doubts about the prospect that the economic “stimulus” plan Obama signed into law last week will be sufficient to jumpstart the economy. More than two-thirds of those surveyed say they expect that more federal spending will be needed to get the economy humming.
That final number is the most important one for Obama, as he is going to have to propose more spending — not just to address the bank and mortgage crisis but to do what last week’s stimulus package was supposed to do but probably won’t: right the budgets of states and municipalities, keep schools adequately funded and start putting millions of Americans to work on infrastructure projects.
The difficult reality of an economic circumstance like the one in which the United States finds itself is that one, or two, or three interventions won’t be sufficient. The process of undoing decades of damage done by deregulators, free traders and fiscal fantasists is invariably long and frustrating.
For a president to succeed — indeed, for a president to survive politically — in such a period, he must have the combination of public confidence and public patience that Obama seems to enjoy at this point.
The president’s more severe Republican critics will attempt to undermine that confidence and put limits on that patience. This is the nature of politics.
And this is why Obama is making full use of the bully pulpit tonight.
New presidents aren’t required to deliver State of the Union addresses because they have just inherited responsibility for “the union” and thus are not expected to report to Congress on the “state” that it is in until they have had a chance to get to know their way around.
But Barack Obama does not have the luxury of time. The state of the union he inherited is miserable — and, perhaps, even tenuous.
Americans have faith that Obama can improve things, and they appear to understand that it will take him time to accomplish the task. But the quality of his communication with the people — over and above the criticisms in Congress and the punditoid blathering in the media — will determine how much time.
So the president will deliver what for him and for the republic is an exceptionally important address on the state of the union tonight, even if it is not — repeat not a State of the Union address.