A Very Complicated Speech Opportunity

One of the pervasive myths of American politics is that the president, as the preacher at the “bully pulpit,” has a regular ability to significantly change public opinion, and thus should be held responsible for its direction (positive or adverse). That’s not much true, political scientists tell us, but the conscious or unconscious subscription to it by so many observers tends to affect expectations going into the one annual speech when the President can at least be sure to dominate broadcast and cable news for a couple of days: the State of the Union Address.

Obama’s getting a ton of unsolicited advice for tomorrow’s SOTU, and adding it up makes you realize he’s at a juncture in his presidency where “three-dimensional chess” doesn’t even begin to describe the complexity of his burden of persuasion. He has to “frame” the upcoming battles (currently trending towards disaster and hysteria) over the appropriations sequester and the continuing appropriations resolution. That means articulating both a short-term message offering hope and assigning blame as final negotiations begin, while clarifying a very muddled long-term presidential message on the relationship between the economy and the federal budget.

But speaking of the economy, Obama also needs to find or rediscover a reasonably coherent “job-creating” agenda aside from repulsing the austerity policies of the GOP, even if it’s just the usual Democratic prescription (instantly rejected by congressional Republicans these days) of more spending on infrastructure, a vague commitment to trade expansion, and then various initiatives and investments in education and training. Since comprehensive immigration reform is actually moving forward in Congress, however fitfully, he needs to make if at all possible an economic case for that legislation lest the chattering classes accuse him of (once again!) getting “distracted” by liberal social goals from his primary responsibilities. Given the grim struggle going on at the state level over GOP efforts to sabotage implementation of the Affordable Care Act, it would be very helpful if the president succeeded in doing something he did only fitfully during his first term: making the case that completing health care reform is crucial to the economic future of the country and of many millions of individuals, and is the key to long-term fiscal responsibility.

And oh, yeah, Obama also has to talk about gun violence, and figure out how to maintain the broad equality theme of his second inaugural address. And he must address all these challenges in the context of (a) how he chooses to describe an opposition party that seems to have learned very little from the 2012 elections, knowing that (b) media treatment of his speech could well focus on such ephemera as how “commanding” he is perceived as being, not to mention how positive or negative the Orange Man standing behind him appears while signaling his troops on when to stand, sit, applaud or glower.

All in all, I wouldn’t blame the president for hoping Pope Benedict’s resignation–or for that matter, the current MSM excitement over the SOTU response being offered by The Savior of the Republican Party, Marco Rubio–takes away some of the attention.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.