State of the Union: Experts Predict Obama's Message
Policy + Politics

State of the Union: Experts Predict Obama's Message

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President Obama delivers his fourth State of the Union Address tonight in a highly toxic political atmosphere. Americans are dispirited over the pace of the economic recovery and sorely divided over his performance the past three years.   Congress continues to suffer from a terminal case of gridlock. And the two Republican presidential frontrunners, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, have attacked Obama’s economic policies and performance as commander in chief. Gingrich has called Obama the “food stamp president” and “the most dangerous president of our lifetime."

So what to say?

For sure, Obama will have a few things to tout as he goes before a joint session of Congress and a national television audience of potentially 40 million to 50 million Americans -- an economy that is beginning to show some life, a born-again U.S. auto industry, an end to the Iraq war, the killing of Osama bin Laden and a substantial down payment on reducing the deficit.

Obama previewed his speech over the weekend with a video distributed to campaign supporters, billing it as his “blueprint for an American economy that’s built to last,” a slogan designed to evoke blue-collar imagery and draw contrasts with his Republican rivals.  He will spell out initiatives seeking to promote a greater emphasis on American manufacturing, homegrown energy sources and worker training.

In sounding populist themes of economic equity and providing greater opportunity to the middle class that he has been road testing on the campaign trail, Obama said, “We can go in two directions. One is towards less opportunity and less fairness. Or we can fight . . . to build an economy that works for everyone, not just a wealthy few.”

But with Republicans spring-loaded to criticize almost anything he says, would it be wise to boast too much?  What exactly should he try to achieve with the speech to rally congressional and public support and enhance his chances of winning a second term?

The Fiscal Times has asked eight budget, political and public policy experts to give the president advice on how best to handle tonight’s high stakes speech on Capitol Hill. They were asked to spell out the three most important things that Obama must achieve with his speech as he positions himself for another tough go-round with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and the eventual Republican presidential nominee.

Here’s what they had to say:

Mark Thoma, economics professor, University of Oregon
To improve his reelection chances, Obama must convince the electorate that he is on their side, not the side of the wealthy – the financial sector in particular. His recent pivot away from deficit reduction and toward job creation is helpful, but he will need to do much more, and also keep job creation at the forefront of discussions in order to be convincing.

Second, Obama needs to make it clear that the stimulus package and actions taken to date have benefitted households who still doubt the president’s allegiance to their interests. The administration made a huge mistake by underestimating the severity of the crisis and that made their predictions for what the stimulus would accomplish far too optimistic. But relative to the actual performance of the economy, i.e. the much worse trajectory the economy actually took, it’s clear that the stimulus package saved or created millions of jobs. If the administration can help people understand this reality, it will help its reelection case quite a bit.

Finally, the administration needs to hammer Republicans much more than it has over their refusal to support anything that might help households struggling with the recession. I don’t think the administration has been committed enough to doing more to help these households – that’s part of the reason people have doubts about the administration’s allegiance to their interests – but even so Republicans have tried to block everything the administration has tried to do to help. If people understand that, the administration will benefit.

Steve Bell, senior economic director, Bipartisan Policy Center 
Obama needs to educate Americans on the need to have both growth and a real deficit-reduction plan enacted before time runs out.

He needs to take the “big step” and discuss not just entitlements, but Social    Security and Medicare specifically.

He needs to warn Americans that if we continue on the same path, we face the same kinds of economic harm that Europe now experiences.

Yes, I know he won’t do a lot of that, except in generalities. And, yes this Congress may go down as the most “do nothing” in a long, long time. But, leadership would be to talk about serious things in a serious way, with real policy recommendations.

Steve Elmendorf, lobbyist and former top aide to the House Democratic leader
President Obama needs to give a very political campaign speech but dress it upso it looks like a governing speech. That is the advantage of being the president, you get to stand at the podium before congress and command the attention of the American people.   He must defend his jobs record, hammer the do-nothing congress and lay out a vision for the future.   Not an easy task but he has the skills to do it.

G. William Hoagland, former adviser. the Senate Republican Majority Leader
Obama should try to stay away from the campaign rhetoric as much as possible.  He should indicate there would be time for that once the other party has selected its presidential candidate in August.  I don't think he needs to bash Congress in its face -- - Congress seems to have done a pretty good job of undermining its reputation on their own without the President having to pile on in this speech. He should remain "presidential" in this spotlight.
He should acknowledge signs of economic improvement (cite number of private jobs created in the last many months) but be humble in that unemployment and particularly long-term unemployment remains unacceptably high and people are suffering. So, in the next few weeks to help continue private jobs growth, Congress should pass the FAA long-term funding bill, the Highway bill, and the extension of the payroll tax cut quickly (whether I personally agree with the payroll tax extension or not), and extend the long-term unemployment benefits (again not that I necessarily agree with the policy).

He should acknowledge that a year from , unacceptable meat ax spending cuts will occur with difficult consequences for our national security (on top of what his budget will be required to do anyway to meet the current spending caps). Therefore, we (President and Congress) should not put aside the hard work of finding reasonable and thoughtful ways to meet the deficit reduction targets without relying on the automatic cuts that will occur.  This should also be a segue to reform of the tax code (he probably should not mention to this crowd that this also entails increased taxes) along with simplification.
Also,  he probably should take some credit for bringing troops home from Iraq but at same time remain very firm on Iran and the Straights of Hormus.

David M. Walker, CEO, Comeback America Initiative and Former U.S. Comptroller General
President Obama should outline the major actions that he took to avoid a depression and turn the economy around. He should also note the more encouraging recent economic indicators, including reductions in unemployment and improvement in the housing market.

He should make it clear that our nation's financial condition must be strengthened and that steps need to be taken to address the huge structural deficits that lie ahead before a debt crisis comes to America's shores.

Obama should then describe his overall approach to restoring fiscal sanity. This should include a commitment for him to show more leadership and use the "bully pulpit" of the Presidency to state the facts and speak the truth about the type of social insurance, tax and other reforms that will be necessary to keep America great and make sure that our future is better than our past.

David Francis, Fiscal Times defense and foreign policy correspondent
First, any grand legislative plan should be shelved; there's no chance it will pass the Republican controlled House.  Instead, Obama should focus on recent positive economic news and signs that point to a strong recovery in 2012, while acknowledging that there is more to do on the job front.

Second, he should take credit for all of the foreign policy successes he's had, including the death of Osama bin Laden and the end of the Iraq War. For the first time in quite a while, Republicans have little room to criticize Democrats on national security and foreign policy issues. When they do criticize, it rings hollow. Obama should make sure the public knows he was able to accomplish what a Republican president was not.

Obama's tone is a tricky question. He's tried to play nice with Republicans in recent years, and he has not been rewarded for his conciliatory tone. And while it doesn't seem natural that Obama would threaten to knock his opponent out, as Newt Gingrich recently threatened to do, he has shown his ability to fire up his base with inspiring rhetoric in the past. Democrats refuse to acknowledge that Republicans aren't here for an intellectual debate: they're here for a street fight and they have shown they known how to play dirty. It wouldn't hurt for Obama to get his hands a little dirty as well.

Larry J. Sabato,  professor of politics, University of Virginia
“The State of the Union is finally improving, thanks to my policies.” Obama’s reelection will be determined by the real state of the economy next fall—not the one depicted by either Democratic or Republican rhetoric. The president needs to confidently project solid economic growth in 2012 and claim full credit for the upward movement in the economy that may occur this year. If he’s wrong, Obama may well lose, but he has nothing to lose from offering a rosy forecast. It’s presidential bluffing with high stakes, but what choice does Obama have?

“I’m going to fight for the middle class and the things I believe in, come what may.” This year promises to be one of the emptiest legislatively in modern history, even worse than last year. Obama doesn’t have the clout to get much of anything passed. The lack of clout also frees him up to propose almost anything that serves his political interests, since he doesn’t have to trim anything to suit GOP tastes. Obama should take advantage of this, and include every poll-tested, popular idea in his playbook. When the Congress has an 11% approval rating, any president has a big advantage.

“As commander-in-chief, I am proud of our successes abroad."  It’s election year -- time for some breast-beating. Obama certainly can’t brag much about the domestic scene, so he might as well make a large virtue of the significant successes he’s had internationally. Even Republicans acknowledge many of them. Obama can play tough guy on terrorism, detailing the deaths of Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders. He can point to the end of the Iraq War, the phase-out in Afghanistan, the trade pacts, and other achievements. The more presidential Obama looks and sounds, the less likely he’ll be replaced in November — unless a bad economy makes a second term impossible.

Brad Bannon, Democratic activist and founder of Bannon Communications Research    
House Republicans care more about breaking the president than they do about fixing the economy. Obama should therefore tell Americans exactly what he thinks the country needs without worrying about GOP reaction. The more expansive the president's agenda is, the more stubborn the GOP will look.  Last week, Mitt Romney claimed the president hadn't offered any proposals to create jobs. Memo to Mitt, the president proposed a new jobs plan last fall and House Republicans rejected it out of hand.
Keep the heat on the do-nothing congressional Republicans. Since Labor Day, the president has aggressively confronted House Republicans and it has paid off.  President Obama's refusal to compromise with House Republicans on the extension of the payroll tax cut forced Speaker John Boehner to run up the right flag on GOP attempts to block the tax reduction. The split between the Speaker and the tea party caucus in the House is great for the President. Voters have been angry for a long time and it’s time for the President to get pissed off too.
It's still the economy stupid, but national security could be important to the president's re-election. Tensions with Iran are reaching a boiling point. President Obama can talk about national security to point out his success in this area. He has withdrawn troops from Iraq ahead of schedule and decapitated Al Qaeda including its leader Osama bin Laden. The president should point out that he helped dispose of the dictator in Libya without loss of American life while President George W. Bush spent a trillion dollars and the lives of 4,500 brave young Americans to get rid of the dictator in Iraq. The president can focus on his foreign policy successes to make the point that he could have fixed the economy and created more jobs if congressional Republicans hadn't stood in his way.