What does the president have to do in his first big address to Congress tonight? Avoid Jimmy Carterisms. Preach fiscal responsibility in a time of stimulus. And no matter what the doubters say, double down on bipartisanship. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.
President Obama is a master at the poetry of campaigning. The prose of governing has offered a steeper learning curve. Tonight’s state of the nation address is where the symbolism and the substance meet.
The goals the president will set out—from deficit reduction to entitlement reform to healthcare reform—would be ambitious in any environment, but amid a deepening economic crisis they are St. George-slaying-the-dragon-style heroics with even worse odds. Talk about the audacity of hope.
Republicans are ready to break out the Jimmy Carter comparisons if Obama ruminates on American malaise and presents a doom and gloom vision of the future.
Below are key themes and elements to listen for in this high-stakes, high-wire-act:
Realistic but Optimistic: President Obama has to strike a balancing act in terms of tone. Leaders must tell the truth if they want to remain credible—and the reality is that times are tough. There is no sign of sunshine on the horizon. But Republicans are ready to break out the Jimmy Carter comparisons if Obama ruminates on American malaise and presents a doom and gloom vision of the future. He needs to diagnose our problems directly and then clearly prescribe policy solutions to get us out. The rhetoric should be rooted not just in calls for shared sacrifice, but appeals to the history of Americans overcoming long odds in far worse situations, from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War to civil rights. We shall overcome and then rise to new heights.
Return to Fiscal Responsibility: President Obama will use the speech to announce plans to cut the deficit in half by the end of his term, from $1.3 trillion to $553 billion. This might seem incongruous with the $787 billion stimulus package the president just signed, but it’s a welcome sign that the president has not gotten drunk on the neo-Keynesian Kool-Aid being passed around Washington. Expect conservatives to harp on the Bush tax-cut rollback for the top bracket, but the real action will be within the president’s own party, which will be facing a Nixon-in-China challenge with Social Security and other unfunded mandates. It’s not just a wise move in terms of generational responsibility, it’s a wise move in terms of politics—recapturing the attention of the fiscally responsible center after the pork barrel excesses of the Bush years and the stimulus bill. Remember, the underlying narrative of politics right now is that we have all been living beyond our means and its time to restore some common sense.
Reframe Healthcare Reform: The President surprised many observers when he announced a new healthcare reform summit will be held next week. It is a big-ticket item many analysts thought would be DOA in the economic crisis despite its core importance to Democrats. But there are indications of a new framing of the issue focused on the need to reform healthcare for the sake of long-term fiscal responsibility and international competitiveness. Expect the phrase “uniquely American solution” to be used a lot in the coming weeks as a counter to GOP “European-style socialism” critiques—and a public-private proposal to emerge frustrating a few far left activists who have long advocated a single-payer system. The best carrot-and-stick gambit would be to pair healthcare reform with tort reform, giving doctors something to cheer about while declaring independence from the liberal trial lawyer lobby.
Stay the Post-Partisan Course: President Obama has been besieged on both the left and right with advice to abandon the post-partisanship which propelled his campaign. He should not listen to this cynical Washington realpolitik, but instead mount strenuous defense of his bi-partisan problem-solving vision. The party elites and partisan activists must not like it, but the American people want to break with the polarized politics of the past. You can tell that when even committed partisans like Republican Newt Gingrich and Democratic Cong. Charlie Rangel advocate the need for “not Democrat or Republican solutions” but American solutions. They read the polls. Yesterday’s bipartisan fiscal responsibility summit at the White House was a substantive step forward laying the foundation for the next round of Obama administration legislation.
Since Woodrow Wilson revived the practice of presidents' addressing a joint session of Congress in 1913, rarely have presidents’ addressed the nation facing a more complicated array of challenges. An untested president facing two wars and a global economic meltdown is novel-worthy drama. The Republicans are upping their game by selecting Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, one of their rising stars, to give the official response. This is the speech that will set out the president’s legislative agenda. This is history in the present tense.
John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Avlon also served as Director of Speechwriting and Deputy Director of Policy for Rudy Giuliani's Presidential Campaign. Previously, he was a columnist for the New York Sun and served as Chief Speechwriter and Deputy Communications Director for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He worked on Bill Clinton's 1996 presidential campaign.