Obama must surprise in State of the Union

By Michael Waldman
February 11, 2013

President Barack Obama stirred with an unexpectedly powerful inaugural address – a second effort that far surpassed his first. He summoned great themes of American history to argue cogently for his second-term agenda. Now he has a chance to deliver a State of the Union address that improves on those of his first term, too.

The key to success? Presidents still have the power of surprise. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “I am like a cat. I make a quick stroke, and then I relax.” As in his inaugural, Obama should surprise us – this time with new policies and sharp specificity. On the budget, democracy reform and immigration, the president stands well positioned.

Forget the Super Bowl, or even the Oscars. For us policy wonks and ex-speechwriters, this is the biggest event – the time to crack open a beer, microwave the Buffalo chicken wings and settle down in front of the TV for a siege of viewing.

For the State of the Union remains among America’s few civic rituals. It is the one time every year that citizens can hear our leader talk, at length and directly, about where he would take the country. Presidents are ubiquitous nowadays. The idea of an Oval Office address, with everyone hanging breathlessly on the first “My fellow Americans,” is a relic of the Walter Cronkite era.  But television channels across the dial still all tune in to the State of the Union, a rare remaining “roadblock.” And the public still watches. The 2012 speech, largely devoid of controversy, drew 38 million viewers.

I worked with President Bill Clinton on his State of the Union addresses. Clinton relished this combination of politics, policy and showmanship. He prepared for weeks. In fact, he used the speeches to organize his agencies and launch his policy agenda.

Clinton also enjoyed the chance to talk at Castro-like length. Every year, helpful “friends” and pundits would intone to harried speechwriters, “Be thematic. Avoid a laundry list.” Yet State of the Union speeches, at their best, are an eloquent laundry list. That cannot be avoided. At their best, though, they marry specificity with memorable themes.

Presidents have set the nation’s course in these addresses. FDR surprised by outlining his “Four Freedoms” in 1941, setting out idealistic war aims for a conflict the nation had not yet joined. In 1961, John F. Kennedy jolted by challenging the country to land a man on the Moon. (He had already given a SOTU in January, but then the Bay of Pigs happened. The second speech was a “do-over.”) Clinton, in the first days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, unexpectedly launched a proposal for how to deal with the budget surplus (“Save Social Security First”). When Republicans joined in the applause, a trillion dollars shifted in the budget.

The common element was not eloquence, but the unexpected. Presidents can still reshuffle the deck. Here are a few ways Obama could surprise us.

The Budget: One important policy area barely mentioned in Obama’s inaugural address is the grinding struggle over the economy and budget. On this the president stands tall, having waged and won an election on core issues of economic fairness.

Republicans have largely abandoned threats to force a default on the national debt as a negotiating ploy. But the sequester still looms, with a potentially significant drag on the economy. Already, the economy shuddered to a standstill in the fourth quarter of 2012, as businesses girded for cutbacks.

Obama can do much to frame the issue – and set the terms of debate – with a strong defense of his approach and an explicit challenge to his foes. He must explain, far better than he has, that “putting our house in order” and “living within our means” are homey familial metaphors, but not a macroeconomic strategy for a great nation.  We need more investment and even stimulus now – and more significant fiscal discipline later – than either party has been willing to offer.

Democracy reform: He can use the address to speak to this essential American value. On Election Night, fresh from images of polling place chaos and long lines, he blurted out, “by the way – we need to fix that.” In his ringing inaugural address, he linked election reform to the struggle for voting rights at Selma. He showed how the presidential bully pulpit can still light a spark. Obama’s leadership has already stirred excitement, and congressional Democrats are preparing new voting bills to address the problem of long lines at the polls.

Obama can take the next step by setting out what he has in mind – for example, legislation to modernize voter registration so all eligible citizens are on the rolls. He could also talk about national standards for early voting and election machines and polling places.

Immigration: Uniter or divider? No one will be shocked when the president talks forcefully about immigration reform. After the demographic blowout of the 2012 election, both parties are scrambling to enact comprehensive legislation. The broad outlines of a plan are in view. Here, Obama must choose how to talk about immigration. Should he seek to elicit applause throughout the chamber? That would buy goodwill. Or should he poke at controversial issues – such as the pace of the pathway to citizenship – helping Democrats remind Latino voters of the partisan divide? A deft president can play the congressional Wurlitzer with skill.

Optimism: Perhaps the most interesting new factor will be the way the president projects his personality. In his first term, Obama appeared sober, sometimes careworn. Since his reelection – since the second debate with Mitt Romney, in fact, when he leapt off the canvas – he has seemed newly jaunty, confident that he had tapped mainstream American sentiment.

The more aggressive his tone, the more popular he gets. (After his strikingly progressive inaugural speech, Obama’s popularity lofted to 60 percent.) Americans like their president to be less a worrier, more a Happy Warrior.

As this fifth State of the Union approaches, we feel we know our president. Most of the time, he is, in fact, “No Drama Obama.” Tuesday night, let’s hope he sheds that reserve, and gives us some unexpected drama.

PHOTO (Top): President Barack Obama speaking in Las Vegas, January 29, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

PHOTO (Insert Middle): President Bill Clinton waves after arriving in the House Chamber to deliver his final State of the Union address in Washington January 27, 2000. REUTERS

PHOTO (Insert Bottom): Undocumented University of California – Los Angeles students stand in line at a graduation ceremony for UCLA “Dreamers,” or Dream Act students, at a church near the campus in Los Angeles, California June 15, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

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