Opinion

The Great Debate

Obama must surprise in State of the Union

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.

Seeking consensus on immigration, guns

Two tough issues — immigration reform and gun control. “It won’t be easy,” President Barack Obama said about gun control in December, “but that’s no excuse not to try.”   Tuesday, he said about immigration reform: “The closer we get, the more emotional this debate is going to become.”

Which does he stand a better chance of winning?  Answer: immigration. On immigration, Obama has Democrats strongly behind him. Republicans are divided — and freaked out by the issue. On guns, he’s got Republicans strongly against him. Democrats are divided — and freaked out by the issue.

On both issues, the president has the public solidly behind him. That’s his biggest asset. “There’s already a growing consensus for us to build from,” he said on Dec. 19, five days after the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre. “A majority of Americans support banning the sale of military-style assault weapons.’’ On Jan. 29, when he went to Las Vegas to speak about immigration reform, he said, “A broad consensus is emerging and … a call for action can be heard coming from all across America.”

Immigration plan does only half the job

Heeding the Obama administration’s call for immigration reform, a bipartisan group of eight senators Monday released a proposal they plan to introduce as legislation. They wisely included legalization for current undocumented immigrants, but their plan will likely come up short on a guest-worker program for legal migrant workers.

While legalization is a good step, lack of a comprehensive guest-worker program only perpetuates the problem many immigration critics cite as their biggest concern: unauthorized immigration. Yet guest-worker measures have worked in this country before, so it is pure politics, rather than substance, that prevents officials from crafting one now.

Unauthorized immigrants who are not violent or criminals should indeed be legalized. They came here for economic security, and many are on their way to achieving it. So many of their offspring, the so-called “DREAMers,” who were brought here as children, know nothing but the United States and speak only English. They are Americans in all the ways that count — except a law that now says they aren’t. It’s time for the law to accept them.

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