Think of President Obama's State of the Union speech Tuesday night as the political equivalent of throwing out the first ball of the major-league baseball season. It is the requisite, almost ceremonial beginning to a long process in which, in the end, there may or may not be surprises.
Here are some key elements of the speech to consider:
- Content: Calculated leaks by the White House already have told us the major themes Obama will pursue. That is, he simultaneously will urge deficit- and debt-reduction through entitlement and tax reform; federal spending for job creation; and initiatives toward international "competitiveness" and "opening foreign markets to U.S. goods" (neither necessarily synonomous with free trade). He will defend Obamacare, passed by the Congress last year, but will signal his willingness to change specific provisions. He will mention immigration, terrorism, Iran, North Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan — but not discuss them at length. Polling tells him that voters are more concerned with domestic issues. Besides, any of the national security/foreign policy issues could turn seriously wrong at moment's notice. He would prefer to avoid them.
- Tone: As suggested in my Crosscut pieces of Nov. 4 and Dec. 27, Obama will return to the bipartisan, reaching-across-politics-and-ideology themes which he employed to win the 2008 national election — and then abandoned in his more partisan first two years in office. His partisan phase gained passage of Obamacare but, at the same time, cost Democrats 63 House seats, six Senate seats, and control of several governorships and state legislatures.
Since last November's election he has shaken up his staff, installing former Clinton Commerce Secretary, banker, and Chicago pol Bill Daley as his chief of staff. He has made a calculated outreach to the business community and installed General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt as head of a new Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. He has, in fact, changed his whole economic-policy team except for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. His more moderate post-election rhetoric and speech, in particular after the Tucson shootings, have raised his public-approval ratings, although only to the 50 percent level. Obama has had little choice but to change both his tone and emphasis. Republicans made huge November gains, in particular, because of voter dissatisfaction with deficits ($1 trillion annually over the next 10 years) and residual federal debt (at $14 trillion and counting), plus their sense that Obamacare was jammed through without majority public support. And some of the 2009-10 bailout and stimulus measures were perceived as sending big federal money to favored financial houses and businesses (such as Immelt's GE) while doing too little to create jobs and bring relief to hard-pressed homeowners, small-business operators, and taxpayers.
- How the speech gets drafted: Unlike Inaugural speeches, State of the Union speeches too often become laundry lists of initiatives that federal departments and agencies wish to make but which often are abandoned thereafter. Some two weeks before the speech, Cabinet members and heads of independent agencies are asked to send to the White House their "wish lists" for inclusion in the speech. These get winnowed down. White House staff and political allies also make their input. So do congressional leaders of the president's party. The principal themes and tone of the speech come from the president and his chief advisors But, if they are not careful, they can yield to their government and end up with a specifics-laden speech that will be less effective than a shorter recitation of the president's principal priorities for the year. If Tuesday night's speech appears to run too long, and have too much detail, you will know that Obama and Co. fell victim to this syndrome.
- The opposition party: Republicans must strike just the right note Tuesday night in their reactions to the Obama speech. They won last November's election but that does not mean they can respond to Obama's newly moderate tone with harsh or partisan rhetoric. Cameras will be focusing on key GOP leaders throughout the speech. House Speaker John Boehner will be on camera the whole time, sitting behind Obama. Anyone sneering, booing, or sitting on his/her hands will be singled out immediately by cameras. Democrats also will be watched, of course. If they do not sufficiently applaud Obama's applause lines, they too will be found by cameras. Republicans and Democrats have broken with custom and no longer will be seated according to their partisanship. Some have chosen "partners" of the other party with whom to watch the speech. Others are sitting as state delegations, including both Republicans and Democrats. Since the symbolic emphasis is on bipartisanship and cooperation, leaders of both parties will be trying to show themselves in that light Tuesday night.
- The season after the opening pitch: Once the media post-mortems of the speech get done, the real season will get underway. No matter how successful the speech — and it no doubt will be judged successful, given what we already know of i — the fundamentals will determine the success of the year to come both for Democrats and Republicans.
The economy is projected to grow by about 3 percent in the year ahead — an improvement over the past two years but less than the growth rate usually expected coming out of a severe downturn. Unemployment will remain uncomfortably high. It remains above 9 percent now and may not end 2011 much below 8 percent.
No matter what Obama and Congress do, short-term deficits and long-term debt will remain daunting (and frightening to ordinary voters). They must take significant action on this front in 2011, however, or incumbents of both parties, including Obama, will be punished by voters in 2012.
It seems too soon — it always seems too soon — but 2012 campaigning shortly will be underway. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad and Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman already have said they will not seek re-election next year. Others figures in both parties will be doing this as the year wears on. Barring a calamity internationally — especially in Iraq or Afghanistan — Obama is a sure thing for the Democratic presidential nomination. But Republicans are poised for a several-candidate free-for-all for the GOP nomination fight, which already is gathering steam. At this early stage, former Massachusetts Gov. and 2008 candidate Mitt Romney would have to be classified the front-runner in that race. But there are too many variables and uncertainties to make a call this early. (At this stage in 2007, remember, then Sen. Hillary Clinton appeared a shoe-in for the Democratic nomination).
Here comes that opening pitch. Play ball!