President Barack Obama will take center stage tonight to deliver his third State of the Union address, a speech that takes on heightened significance in an election year. With anywhere from 43 million to 52 million viewers, tonight's address is as much a 2012 campaign speech as it is an opportunity for Obama to size up the state of the country and lay out his plans for the year to come.
What will the president say? Yesterday, Politico reported that in preparation for tonight's speech, President Obama was looking for something bold and iconic, his own version of the Hoover Dam, but incoming Council of Econmic Advisers Chair Christin Romer steered him away from big initiatives for the stimulus that are not feasible. Romer apparently coached Obama to pursue less sexy, but more effective ideas like sending hundreds of millions of dollars to the dozens of states that are struggling with budget crises of their own.
Thus, tonight we can expect a reprise of many of the populist economic themes that Obama articulated last month in Osawatomie, Kan. The president is likely to convey the frustrations of the middle-class and demand more sacrifice from the wealthy. White House senior adviser David Plouffe said that Obama will specifically outline a plan to make sure that wealthy Americans pay.
When asked about Mitt Romney's tax returns, which indicated that the Massachusetts governor paid a 14 percent effective income tax rate in 2010, Plouffe said, "One of the things that the president is going to talk in the State of the Union tonight is something what Warren Buffett famously talked about — that he should not pay less in taxes than his secretary does." He continued, "The president, as you know, has talked about something called the Buffett rule. We’re going to outline that specifically tonight — what that would mean, so that we make sure everybody in this economy is doing their fair share."
At some point in the speech, you can also expect the President to tout his foreign policy successes from the past year. Obama would be silly to waste an opportunity to remind that American people that since he took the stage at this time last year, he has killed Osama bin Laden, followed through on his promise to withdraw troops from Iraq, and successfully managed the Arab Spring (including the war in Libya).
What should he say? The theme of last year's SOTU address was "Winning the Future." Obama talked about our generation's "Sputnik moment," advocating for infrastructure spending and investment in education, technology, and science. He also made it a point to stress the need for bipartisan cooperation in Washington.
The theme of this year's address should be "Winning Today." We need to hear a real, clearly-articulated economic vision from President Obama, a specific plan for how he will jump-start economic growth and curb unemployment this year. More importantly, we need to hear Obama's plan for how he plans to implement this economic vision. If bipartisan compromise was last year's theme, this year's emphasis should be on doing whatever it takes to get the economy moving again. We need to hear that Obama will not get bogged down by a dysfunctional Congress, that he'll be able to sidestep through Washington bureaucracy to spark economic growth.
How will Obama reach a budget deal with Republicans this year? Will he revive his jobs bill and if so, how will he be more successful getting it passed this year? How will he avoid another prolonged battle over payroll tax extensions?
Obama should not make class-struggle the theme of the night; he should avoid the temptation to depict himself as a 99 percent supporter and condemn Romney as part of the 1 percent. Republicans will pick up on this kind of rhetoric as evidence that Obama supports "class-warfare." After all, attacking Romney as representing the 1 percent is a tough sell for the president, who took heaps of money in 2008 from all the major banks and bailout recipients (Goldman Sachs ($1,013,091), JPMorgan Chase & Co ($808,799), and Citigroup Inc. ($736,771)), along with high-dollar defense lawyers from firms like WilmerHale and Skadden Arps who make their money representing those same banks.
We need to hear a straightforward, non sugar-coated answer as to why President Obama is the right choice in 2012 to get our economy working again. Beneath the clapping from Congress and the rhetorical flourishes that regularly characterize these addresses, this message alone will set the President up for victory in November.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons