What to watch for in Obama's State of the Union

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010; 2:54 PM

Former Clinton White House speechwriter Bob Lehrman, former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd, Democratic pollster Douglas E. Schoen, former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen, former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Martin Frost, House Minority Leader John Boehner and former comptroller general of the United States David Walker discuss what to watch for in tonight's State of the Union Address.

BOB LEHRMAN

White House speech writer, 1993-1995 and author of "The Political Speechwriter's Companion"

With its bloated format and seemingly endless list of things to do, the State of the Union is a rhetorical straightjacket. Even a great speaker surrounded by good writers can't wrestle out of it, and Obama probably won't.

But there are still questions. Will he show he's learned the lesson of Massachusetts by refocusing on the economy and middle-class? Will he abandon the big goals that had been the centerpiece of his campaign and content himself with the minimalist approach?

What about the speech itself? Some writers have targeted Obama recently for the decline in his speaking ability ("Where has Obama's inspiring oratory gone?"). Will he at least display flashes of eloquence? Take some steps to show that while the era of big government may not be over, the era of giant speeches may?

And as someone who's written a response, I'll want to see whether Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) and his writers will be the first team to find some way of having impact since the response started, back in 1966. The odds are against him. But stranger things have happened.

MATTHEW DOWD

Political analyst for ABC News; chief strategist for George W. Bush's 2004 presidential campaign

As President Obama speaks tonight, he is likely to say things that are broadly meant to tell us he is capturing the mood of the electorate and is leading in the direction they want to go.

First, listen for some version of mea culpas and that he acknowledges mistakes that were made, especially on healthcare and losing his focus on jobs, and that he has learned from them and takes accountability for them. America has a great capacity for forgiveness and moving on, but only if leaders admit error and accept responsibility.

Second, stay attuned to the way the president gives voice to Americans' anxieties, but then gives a vision and a way to the promised land. Obama is looking to capture what we hope for. Voters have a great capacity to wander in the desert, but only if they know a land of milk and honey is on the horizon.

Third, the president needs to criticize the politics in Washington, but not lay blame on one political party. Attacking Republicans at this point will not serve him well, but attacking the current polarized politics of Washington will be well received around the country. Americans nationwide view the system in Washington as broken and don't want more contributions to the divide that impedes our progress. Voters want to know that Obama is more concerned with the country than with his party.

Americans still remain hopeful in this talented president while being disappointed in his first year in office. This is Obama's chance to be the best of what we all have seen in him and to lead us boldly into the 21st century. Its really up to him to show if he is the new kind of leader the country vested as head of the only remaining global super power.

ED ROGERS

White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; chairman of BGR Group

By any measure President Obama is weaker politically today than he was a year ago. Tonight's address is more of a problem than an opportunity. It will be hard for the speech to have any lasting impact given the skepticism and cynicism that permeate American politics.

The president won't solve all of his problems and won't make everyone happy tonight, so ... he shouldn't try. He needs to convincingly acknowledge the obvious about our economic problems and be credible in offering a plan. If he doesn't strike the right tone on the economy, post-speech analyses will deem declare the address a bust and all his problems will become worse.

Even the dynamics of the room will be a challenge for Obama. If possible, he has to try to avoid partisan applause. The speech needs to be serious, and silence will be preferable over any cheering and celebration from the Democrat ranks.

He needs to say enough about terrorism and the war so that he doesn't take criticism for neglecting these topics, but tonight should be all about the economy, and he can't try to force economic vocabulary onto what are actually left-wing social programs the way he did with health care. Look for a graceful punt of comprehensive health-care reform.

Tonight Obama has to prove that he gets it, maybe eat a little humble pie, and begin to restore confidence in his judgment and political pitch.

DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN

Democratic pollster and author

The electorate is increasingly restless, and from what has been leaked, it's not yet clear that President Obama has settled on a solid direction for tonight's State of the Union address. Is it deficit reduction, via the spending freeze? Is it populism? Is it bipartisanship?

As I listen, I'll be trying to notice: How prominent is job creation? How much emphasis is there on deficit reduction vs. helping the embattled middle class? How populist a tone does the president take? And will he in any form explicitly articulate a bipartisan approach to policymaking?

I don't see Obama leaning toward a moment like in Bill Clinton's 1996 address, when he said that the era of big government is over. Rather, I think Obama will emphasize that the era of big government is slowly being reined in, even as he expands social welfare programs.

The president needs to chart a bold new course. He can start by acknowledging that health care needs to be done with tort reform and malpractice reform as well as his core initiatives. He has to make clear to the American people that he understands their concerns -- their desire to rein in the size of government and their desire for concrete assistance with daily life, particularly when it comes to job creation. He should emphasize entrepreneurship and fiscal prudence, as well as tax cuts for business and individuals to stimulate the economy.

Also, Obama should note how he is going to govern from the center. He can start by inviting Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner to the White House.

MARC THIESSEN

Lead writer of President George W. Bush's last two State of the Union Addresses; author of "Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack"

Listen tonight to see if President Obama addresses the growing public discontent over his handling of terrorist detainees. For many Americans, the near-catastrophe in Detroit was a wake-up call -- and they want some sign that the president saw it that way as well. Unhappiness with Obama's approach to the handling of captured terrorists has been percolating for months, and opposition has grown toward his decisions to shut down CIA interrogations, close Guantanamo, bring terrorists to the United States, hold civilian trials for terrorists such as Khalid Shiekh Mohammed and give terrorists Miranda rights. For millions of Americans, that opposition crystalized in a single moment: When the Obama Justice Department told the Christmas Day bomber he had the right to remain silent. Scott Brown made this a key issue in his Massachusetts Senate campaign and won. Others will take a lesson from his success and do the same.

This is a major vulnerability for the Democrats in 2010 and beyond. How will Obama deal with this? Will he continue to claim (implausibly) that the FBI exhausted all the valuable intelligence Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had in the 50 minutes it questioned him before giving him a lawyer? Or will he acknowledge the mistake and return to his promise from the campaign: "Do these folks deserve Miranda rights? Do they deserve to be treated like a shoplifter down the block? Of course not." Will he defend his decision to try Khalid Shiekh Mohammed in civilian court? Will he call on Congress to provide funding to close Guantanamo? If Obama does not send the message that the events of the past few weeks have awoken his administration to terrorist dangers, the insurrection seen in Massachusetts will grow, gain momentum and spread across the country.

MARTIN FROST

Former representative from Texas; chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 1995 to 1998

We should all listen for how much of the president's speech is devoted to the economy and his economic solutions. To the extent that he gets distracted with lengthy discussions of foreign policy, the war on terrorism, energy policy and other matters not directly connected to the economy, he will lose his audience. It is also important for President Obama to summarize the good things that have happened in the past year so the public understands that he has made a difference in their lives already. He shouldn't over-emphasize this, but he should remind everyone that we could have had an economic crash had he not governed with a steady hand and reasonable policies. Obama can take shots at banks for overreaching, but he must establish himself and his team as being critical to a sound economic system.

Additionally, we should expect strong indications that he is not abandoning health-care reform even though whatever passes now cannot be as ambitious as what he originally intended. People need to hear that he is a fighter on important issues such as health care, even if he has reduced expectations.

Finally, Obama should announce that he will, in fact, appoint a commission by executive order to deal with the deficit and that -- like the commission that reformed Social Security in the 1980s -- it will include people with Washington expertise who know where the dollars are buried. This panel should not be just a bunch of academics.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OHIO)

House minority leader

Tonight, President Obama needs to prove he is listening to the American people. Washington Democrats have been twisting themselves in knots about the need to change their message -- but the real problem isn't the message, it's their job-killing agenda. The president must do more than rhetorically "pivot." He needs to announce he will scrap policies that make it harder for middle-class families and small businesses to save, invest, and hire.

No one but Washington special interests wants his government takeover of health care. The president should announce he's giving up on it and starting over on a bipartisan bill. No more scheming and scrambling to jam it through Congress with some backroom deal.

Instead of a half-baked spending "freeze," how about real budget caps that can be enforced? And instead of more government "stimulus" spending, we need to work together on real solutions to help small businesses create jobs. Frankly, we want to work in the bipartisan way Obama promised during the campaign on issues other than Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last Friday, on a visit to my home state of Ohio, the president said his complained that his agenda had run into a "buzzsaw." That "buzzsaw" was the American people. They're shouting "stop," and I hope the president can hear them.

DAVID WALKER

President and CEO, The Peter G. Peterson Foundation and former comptroller general of the United States

President Obama should focus his remarks primarily on what needs to be done to achieve sustainable economic growth and to create more jobs. This includes helping people understand the progress that has been made and what remains to be done. In the short-term, steps may need to be taken to further stimulate the economy and create jobs. They may result in additional deficits, but short-term deficits are not what threaten our ship of state.

In addition to addressing our current economic challenges, the president needs to state what he plans to do to address the large, known and growing structural deficits that represent the true threat to our country's and families' futures. He should announce his intent to form a Presidential Fiscal Responsibility Commission via executive order.

A commission should focus on providing recommendations which successfully address the nation's fiscal challenges over the next several decades, not simply aim to reduce short-term deficits within the next few years. This commission should involve capable, credible and committed people who will rise above partisan politics and rigid ideology to make a range of recommendations that will help to put our federal financial house in order. Everything should be on the table, including budget controls, social insurance reforms, defense and other spending reprioritization and constraint, and additional revenue. In addition, efforts should be made to ensure that the commission engages Americans outside of the Beltway while also ensuring that its recommendations will receive a vote in Congress.

America is at a critical crossroads. We must take steps to address our immediate economic challenges while also taking steps to ensure our nation's financial future. The time for action on both fronts is now.


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