Advice for President Obama’s State of the Union

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Photo: Tim Sloan-Pool/Getty Images

Because the general themes that President Obama will touch upon in his State of the Union address tonight have, as always, already been reported, the speech shouldn't contain too many surprises. The economy, of course, is going to be the focus, and Obama is expected to "lay out his case for investment in education and infrastructure, while tempering his call for new initiatives with an acknowledgment of the country’s long-term fiscal challenges." With regard to the deficit, Obama is "not expected to get into the details and will instead call for members of both parties to work together to tackle the problem, according to congressional and administration sources." But questions remain: How will Obama pitch his ideas to a divided Congress? How does he convince spending-wary America that investment is not an evil thing? How upbeat can he be about the economic recovery without seeming out of touch? Should he be bold and inspiring, or just settle for good enough? Pundits from across the political spectrum are laying out these challenges, and giving advice, in the hours leading up to the big speech.

Chris Cillizza, Fix/WP:

State of the Union speeches tend to be quickly forgotten due to a format that typically dissolves into a laundry list of policy proposals -- most of which will never see the light of day (or the floor of the House). Typically, the more poetry -- rhetorically speaking -- Obama can wedge into a speech, the better received the speech is.

Michael Crowley, Swampland/Time:

When it comes to the budget and economy, Obama will have to perform a delicate dance. He'll want to boast about the economy's gradual comeback while also showing he understands how grim it still feels for millions of Americans. He'll want to instill come consumer optimism (the cheapest form of stimulus, as Larry Summers likes to say) without repeating his spring 2010 mistake of raising false hopes about the recovery.

David Brooks, NYT:

President Obama will be talking about economic growth and competitiveness in the State of the Union address Tuesday night. It will be interesting to see if he talks about it in the standard way or in a visionary way .... President Obama exists because his father was drawn to study in the United States. Obama embodies America’s nascent role as the crossroads nation. Let’s see if he can describe the next phase of American greatness.

Bill Clinton Speechwriter Michael Waldman, Politico:

Republicans ran in opposition to exploding federal deficits and, within months of the election, were demanding tax cuts and other steps that would increase the deficit. President Obama needs to find a way to argue that, now that we’ve done quite a bit in the short term to turn the economic situation around, we need to turn to the call for long-term fiscal discipline, which can be used to blunt policies he doesn’t want. Finding a way to pit the deficit anxiety of the public against the tax cut hunger of the Republican elites has to be one of his key goals.

Aamer Madhani, National Journal:

In a sense, a lot of what the American people are likely to hear from Obama tonight will be a familiar refrain. Last month, in a speech in North Carolina, Obama made the case that the Great Recession is America’s latest "Sputnik moment"—a reference to the wakeup call that spurred U.S. investment in math and science education after the Soviet Union launched a satellite into space ahead of the United States. In April, he made the case in a major address on the economy that the country needs “a new foundation for growth and prosperity.” But Obama could face the same problem now as he has in the past: Convincing Americans that government spending is the cure for an ailing economy.

Perry Bacon Jr., WP:

President Obama will face a major challenge after he details his agenda for the second stage of his presidency in Tuesday's State of the Union address: selling it to the two political parties .... [T]he president is expected to offer a series of proposals that don't fall on sharp ideological lines as last year's health care bill did, but will still test the two parties' ability to work together. He is expected to tout deficit reduction, but the two sides don't agree on how to get there. Republicans largely favor spending cuts, Democrats a combination of cuts and tax increases.

William Galston, New Republic:

Beyond the economy, there is an overriding political reality with which Obama must reckon: The people are sick of the political polarization that has intensified in recent decades. His post-November moves toward conciliation in tone and substance have been well received and have helped spark his surprising rise in public approval. Surely, he wants to continue the “president of all the people” stance that has served him well since the 2010 midterm election. But at the same time, he disagrees with Republicans about the best course for the economy. As we saw with the tax deal, a politics of conciliation means giving ground on fundamentals. So where will he draw the line between matters that can be compromised and those that can’t?

Andrew Malcolm, Top of the Ticket/LAT:

Faced with the stark reality that a newly Republican House will stymie any more of his liberal blockbuster bills for two years at least, Obama is smartly appearing to move toward the middle of the road, always the safest route to presidential victory in America. If it works, he'll then have four years of no next-term accountability to implement whatever other grand plans reside in his activist mind. Obama's recent uptick in job approval indicates this road shuffle may be working for now. Tonight's reasonable rhetoric from the Real Good Talker should provide further evidence.

Chris Stirewalt, Fox News:

If Obama wants to do a big, bold vision speech, he should take a chance and do it. If he wants to play it safe by patting his own back a bit and calling for a few vague initiatives, he should do that. But he shouldn’t try a mash up or he’ll be neither safe nor inspiring.

Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight/New York Times:

Mr. Obama’s speech tonight is unlikely to break the mold. If anything, he may be especially disinclined to take risks. He seems to have been on a winning streak of late — a productive lame-duck session of Congress and a very well-received speech after the Tucson shootings two weeks ago — and he may see little reason to break from the bipartisan tone that he adopted in his address at the University of Arizona.

John T. Woolley, chair of the political science department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, NPR:

In these kinds of moments, people don't want to be told how bad things are unless at the same time they can be told how things can get better. They don't want to think the president is depressing because that's depressing [to the public]. We want him to be optimistic and carry us along with him. ... It's really hard to pull off that kind of sober 'we have to face realities' talk and not have it go off the rails.