Have there been lower expectations for a State of the Union speech in recent memory? In comparison to the same moments in the presidential terms of Clinton 1998 and Bush 2006, President Obama’s speech tomorrow night seems forgotten before he even delivers it. In contrast, Clinton’s speech was widely anticipated, not for its policies, but for its timing, just days after the Monica Lewinsky story broke, a story “drudged” up yesterday by Senator Rand Paul when he said Democrats should remember Clinton’s “predatory” behavior when accusing Republicans of a “war on women.” Bush’s 2006 speech came when his presidency was in as weakened state as Obama’s, but there was at least some minor interest in what President Bush would say about immigration. (He was in favor of some reforms that went beyond the preferences of his party’s base.)
The current White House, aware of the inability of Obama to pass any meaningful legislation, with the possible exception of some kind of immigration reform, has said the president will by-pass Congress and use executive orders to enact some of his agenda. This approach seems a bit like a guest telling his hosts in advance that he will be coming late and leaving early and won’t be bringing a gift. Just two years ago, the president was in a different mood, saying in his State of the Union speech that “we will move forward together, or not at all…” But it’s easy to criticize; if you were advising the president on his speech, which is really an effort to define the mid-term election agenda, what advice would you offer? Here’s mine.
First, re-read your two best SOTU speeches— 2011’s “Winning the future” and 2012’s “Blueprint for an economy that’s built to last.” These speeches were thematically coherent and their proposals were linked to a core message of smart investments in strengthening the middle class. They also did something that the president does too intermittently– they placed his agenda in a broader historical context. People better understand the future when it fits into a story about the past.
Second, own the “mistake” on health care (again) and then pivot to a strong defense of the new law’s benefits. (All the president’s guests in the audience should be living examples of how the new law saved a life or avoided a bankruptcy). The president must offer the game plan for the counterattack on the Republicans’ plan to make the mid-term a referendum on Obamacare. The president may yet make this a winning issue for Democrats next November; interestingly, despite the horrible rollout, American are almost evenly divided on whether they support the new law, according to the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Third, set the bar high on immigration reform. Smart Republicans want to neutralize this Democratic weapon. They want to pass a watered-down version of reform, and even that won’t be easy given some of their nativist members. The president should resist his tendency to have a bipartisan relapse, define a comprehensive approach and make clear he won’t accept imitations.
Finally, the president should swaddle his economic issues like the minimum wage, extending unemployment benefits, investments in infrastructure and education and medical research in a much more populist bundle than he has embraced in the past. Here the president can weave his two main themes together: there is a clear path to a stronger middle class but it is being obstructed by Republicans.
Tomorrow night, the president can gaze out on the nation’s political figures and, whether they are clapping or sitting on their hands, paying attention or yawning, he can know that he is still politically stronger than they are. For all the damage done recently to the president’s image, on the question of who Americans have “confidence in to make the right decisions for the country’s future,” Obama leads Congressional Democrats by 10 points and Republicans by 18 points, according to the Post-ABC news poll. So he is still the defending champion, and however battered, he needs to fight like one.