What Obama Should Say in the State of the Union

WHAT OBAMA SHOULD SAY IN THE STATE OF THE UNION…. When Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address in a few weeks, pundits will expect him to express some humility and willingness to compromise in light of his party’s November losses. And so he should. But he needn’t acquiesce to conservatives, nor make theatrical shows of “fighting” them. Instead, he needs to move from a strategy of overwhelming force (marshaling his congressional Democratic majority to pass health care legislation against a united GOP opposition) to one of subtle jiujitsu (negotiating a tax deal with Republicans that manages to deliver a rabbit-out-of-his-hat stimulus package). Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton spent most of their presidencies contending with divided government, yet still cleverly managed to move their agendas forward. So can Obama, if he can find the right words and ideas.

To that end, the Washington Monthly asked a group of writers, scholars, and White House veterans for their advice about what Obama should say in his State of the Union. Many of them offered the kind of shrewd and surprising ideas that can turn unpromising political circumstances to the president’s — and the country’s — advantage.

For instance, while most commentators on the left are warning Obama not to travel down the deficit-cutting road, Howard Dean, leader of the “Democratic wing of the Democratic party,” begs to differ. The deficit, Dean writes, is “both our country’s greatest threat and the GOP’s greatest vulnerability.” Dean argues that by leading on the issue, Obama can force Republicans to choose between cutting social programs like Medicare, which would anger their Tea Party base, or angering the corporate sector-their other base-by cutting defense spending and similar thickets of crony capitalism.

Former Reagan policy analyst Bruce Bartlett suggests that instead of bargaining only with Republican congressional leaders — whose ability or willingness to compromise on key issues is virtually nil — Obama should elevate “a better class of Republicans.” In his speech, says Bartlett, Obama should mention by name certain serious conservative thinkers, pragmatic Republican governors, or retired GOP elder statesmen who have expressed impatience with the intellectual vacuousness and relentless obstructionism of the current Party. Doing so would confer immense status on these independent Republican voices. Over time, they could become useful partners in advancing Obama’s agenda, much as GOP wise men like Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft were enlisted to pressure Republican leaders on the START Treaty this fall.

Obama’s toughest challenge will be to propose new ideas for the economy that can boost jobs without further draining the treasury. Energy investor Jeffrey Leonard has one to offer. Small businesses, normally the source of most new jobs, have not been hiring, Leonard reports, in part because their larger corporate customers have increasingly adopted the abusive strategy of not paying their bills on time. If the president were to announce in his State of the Union that the federal government simply won’t do business with corporations that indulge in such practices, he’ll win the hearts of entrepreneurs across the country.

Here’s the link to the “What Obama Should Say in the State of the Union” cover package. After the jump, there are individual links to contributors’ recommendations:

Introduction: Clinton Needed Help in ’94. You Need Help Now.
by William A. Galston

Find a Few Good Opponents
by Bruce Bartlett

Recommit to Reform
by Howard Dean

Talk the Jobless Off the Ledge
by Debra J. Dickerson

Send In the Military
by Heather Hurlburt

Appeal to History
by Michael Kazin

Do Small Business a Simple Favor
by Jeffrey Leonard

Rise Above Party
by Will Marshall

Be the Mediator in Chief
by Andres Martinez

Communicate Better
by Theda Skocpol

Make Government More Effective, Not Smaller
by Ruy Teixeira