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Obama's SOTU Challenge

It's a big ritual in politics for everyone with access to a camera, microphone or keyboard to "advise" the president on what he should say in each State of the Union address, and then more or less grade him the next day on how well he took said advice.

Since I doubt he's actually surfing the web looking for speech ideas at this point, I won't give him advice, but it is worth noting that he's once again in a spot when a Great Speech would do him a world of good. At TNR, Jonathan Cohn suggests this is Obama's biggest oratorical challenge since the famous "race speech" of 2008, when his candidacy for president looked to be seriously endangered by the appearance of toxic video snippets from sermons by his long-time pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Cohn goes on to outline the president's unhappy situation:

Obama has to deal with impulses that are clearly at odds with one another--like the fact that the voters want more jobs but oppose deficit spending, which just happens to be the most effective way of reducing unemployment. When it comes to talking about the political process, Obama must somehow address the public’s frustration with gridlock and yearning for bipartisan outreach, even though Republican obstructionism has rendered Obama's efforts at bipartisanship futile.

More immediately, the president has to deal with the likely reaction to whatever he says from conservatives who smell blood and think they have him, at long last, on the ropes, and progressives who are already bristling at his gestures on budget deficits, and/or angry at what they consider his lack of leadership, past and potentially present, on health reform.

Most observers are looking for signs of whether Obama will give short shrift to issues like health reform and climate change, and instead fully "pivot" to an economic message, populist, deficit-hawky, or some of both. Another possibility is that he will make a supreme and long-overdue effort to explain why, in fact, health reform and action on climate change, along with the bank regulations Republicans are sure to oppose, are critical to economic recovery. Maybe he's already "lost" the public on that proposition, but there's certainly no venue like the SOTU to make big and relatively complex arguments with a guarantee that he will be watched by many millions.

Cohn points out that in the "race" speech Obama confounded expectations by lifting the discussion from Wright's comments to a general review of the complexities of racial discord in America. Taking a "higher path" and changing the terms of debate, if he can do that, would represent a significant presidential accomplishment tonight.

The one absolutely essential thing he must do, however much he continues to invite the violently oppositional GOP to cooperate with him, is to make it clear that conservatives do not now represent the "change" Americans voted for in 2008. Even if you think their resistance to Obama's agenda is righteous, the prescriptions that pass for policy "alternatives" in GOP-land these days tend to fall into two baskets: the unserious and the ludicrous, with very few of them actually having the potential to be popular. You need not tie the GOP to George W. Bush to expose that fact: his Republican successors are rapidly making Bush look like a paragon of reasonableness.

It should be clear by now that an ideal SOTU would not only show some resolution and clarity in the administration's course of action--along with some measured humility--thus reversing the current semi-panic in Democratic ranks, but would also begin to set the stage for the November elections by reminding Americans that they actually can't magically wish away the country's problems, and must instead choose between distinct alternatives. The more he casts light on those alternatives--not looking to the past to "blame Bush," but to the future where real decisions must be made on a host of big challenges--the better his presidency, however halting its steps and difficult its path, will look. Since a clear majority of Americans still seem to admire this calm and intelligent man, they will give him their careful attention tonight, and perhaps he will again move them.