There’s nothing else in American politics quite like a State of the Union address. Thank God for it, too. Unquestionably the most tedious event on the political calendar, the SOTU is the pimply cousin’s graduation ceremony of American politics. You don’t want to be there, and your aunt and uncle and cousin don’t even want you there, yet ritualistically, you go, they force a smile, and you all suffer your way through it. All that said, it is a platform, and people do tune in, so Barack Obama can get something out of it by conveying the very simple message: if you are in the middle class, I am on your side. But he should also flavor that bland dish with a little unexpected cayenne pepper.
When did SOTUs become such pulse-deadening productions? When I was young, I found them terribly exciting. “Mish-tah Shpee-kah,” the House doorkeeper used to bellow, in a Boston accent as thick as chowder, reflecting his lineage as a Tip O’Neill patronage appointment: “The president ... of the United States!” Roar! Even though it was Ronald Reagan coming through the door, I loved the pageantry. I once loved the way the president took his seat, and everyone finally quieted down, and then the speaker of the House introduced the president again, and there was a four-minute ovation again.
But it’s gotten old, and very much the worse for wear. Or is it just me? I don’t think so. This started under Bill Clinton, who really turned these speeches into endurance tests. George W. Bush delivered maybe three that were of modest interest. Obama has not exactly revivified the genre. I notice in the last few years some calls for ending this annual ritual, which I would support with a full heart. Or, given that it does appear to be a constitutional requirement, I’d be for the president doing it every couple of years, and in different months (after all, the Constitution says “from time to time,” and I feel dead certain that this is not what the Founders had in mind).
Be that as it may, here we are. What should Obama do with it?
This is not the year to roll out a dozen policy initiatives, Clinton style. We all know that he’ll go one for 12, getting the Republicans to agree to vote for the least important of the 12, which they’ll do just so they can say they behaved in a bipartisan fashion. In other words, it’s not the year to give a presidential speech, communicating to the American people and legislators of the other party that there are great goals to be jointly accomplished in behalf of the people. Bullshit. There’s one goal: get reelected. Everyone knows this. Comport yourself accordingly, or you look weak and naive. Especially at a moment when buckets of blood are swirling in the roiled Republican waters. Loose the sharks.
Obama should—without mentioning them by name—take a couple of whacks at Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. This is a time, with Romney on the ropes and the leading GOP candidate (Gingrich) “enjoying” a roughly -35 point approval-to-disapproval rating, to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Play some head games. Have some fun. Do—if I may—some dozens. Not “your mama is so fat” dozens, obviously. But talk some smack. Drop in one or two that the Republicans will attack as undignified to the occasion. Put them on the defensive, make them sound whiny. Trust me, David Plouffe: independents will like it. They sure didn’t like what you wanted to do last summer (capitulate).
Beyond this, Obama should speak only in broad themes, and that theme is the one I stated at the end of the first paragraph. Middle class, middle class, middle class. And use the wedge. I am for you; they are against you. This speech should be so obvious that if anyone with an IQ higher than 85 is asked tomorrow, “So, what did the president say last night,” the person will say: “He said he was on the side of the middle class.” It would be nice if the person remembered “and the Republicans are for the rich,” but the first sentence will do.
That’s it, and that’s all. But it’s a tall order for a SOTU. It means that Obama—and, crucially, the people around him—have to view this speech differently from most SOTUs. Usually, a SOTU is little more than a kind of competition among agencies to see who can get a pet program mentioned. The lobbying, I kid you not, goes on all year. EPA, Department of Labor, you name it ... they’re all straining to be mentioned or have one of their key initiatives mentioned. It can invigorate them for months. But tonight, Obama needs to be remorseless about not throwing out any bureaucratic bones. If it fits the theme, fine. If it doesn’t, wait till next year, pal.
The mood at the end should be edgy. I want to see Eric Cantor on TV complaining, being “disappointed in” and even “shocked by” the president’s tone. I want to see Joe Walsh in a state of apoplexy. I want to see Michele Bachmann ... no, actually it’s been rather nice not seeing Michele Bachmann lately.
If those things aren’t happening, the speech was a political failure. It seemed as if the White House started getting all this with last fall’s Osawatomie speech. This speech needs to be Osawatomie on steroids. It’s 2012. If he gives a “governing” speech, liberals and Democrats ought to worry. It’s not as if the people on the other side have any interest in governing. Their only interest is beating him, and beating them should be his.