Obama's State of the Union speech: Will America respond to a national pep talk?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 24 2011 7:40 PM

Put Me In, Coach

Obama's plans to use the State of the Union to get Americans excited about the economy.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

Before every State of the Union address, aides to the president say that their man will avoid a dull laundry-list speech that ticks off everything he's done and plans to do. But interest groups, not to mention Cabinet members, like to hear their projects mentioned. So despite the best efforts of the president's aides and speechwriters—and maybe even the presence of a few rhetorical flourishes—there is an inevitable moment in every State of the Union speech when out come the socks and T-shirts. President Obama's aides are making all the familiar promises about his State of the Union. Maybe they will succeed and Tuesday's speech won't sound like a list. Even so, it will fall into a formula. Obama's speech is likely to include three parts—not a list, mind you!—that will allow the president to, yes, tell us about everything he's done and plans to do.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Opening argument: The president and Republican leaders have both promised to shrink the budget deficit. For the next two years, they will fight over how much and how fast. In his speech, Obama will make his first attempt to frame that debate. His message: balance. There must be hard choices about reducing government spending, but the budget deficit cannot be reduced by cutting alone. The economy must also grow, which means making American business more competitive. To do that, the president will argue, the federal government will have to make smart investments in education, infrastructure and technology.

Republicans attacked the president's plans before he announced them. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said it sounded like the same old reflex to spend, which burdens future generations and shrinks access to capital. To rebut this charge, the president will align himself with American CEOs. Last week, after naming General Electric Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt to head the new  Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, Obama argued that such investments are as important as free trade, something the GOP tends to support. When Tom Donohue, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argued recently that investment was necessary to "restoring" America's "economic foundation," he sounded a lot like Obama will sound on Tuesday.

In the past two years, Republicans have often pointed to Obama's strained relationship with American business as proof that his liberal policies were bad for the economy. He hopes the opposite will be true: If business is onboard with his plan to cut and invest, he'll be able to use that as a shield against GOP charges.

Pep talk: In recent days, the president has started to sound like a coach at the start of the season. His most recent radio address was titled "We Can Out-Compete Any Other Nation." In a message to supporters he said his State of the Union address would lay out his plan to "win the future." The president is trying to get everyone enthusiastic about all the wind-sprints and push-ups he's going to ask them to do.

Last year, the president promised a difficult conversation about the choices the country must make to reduce the budget deficit. He's been giving previews of the conversation ever since the campaign. The most recent version was in North Carolina in December. Here's the short version: America is flabby. Our deficit is too large, and our workers and students aren't being trained for the future. In a competitive global economy, this is a recipe for failure. China and India will advance. "As it stands right now, the hard truth is this," he said last month. "In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind."

This all sounds very depressing. But Obama will promise a Hollywood ending. "This is our moment," he said in North Carolina. "If the recession has taught us anything, it's that we cannot go back to an economy that's driven by too much spending, too much borrowing, running up credit cards, taking out a lot of home equity loans, paper profits that are built on financial speculation. We've got to rebuild on a new and stronger foundation for economic growth. We need to do what America has always been known for: building, innovating, educating, making things. We don't want to be a nation that simply buys and consumes products from other countries. We want to create and sell products all over the world that are stamped with three simple words: 'Made in America.' "

Renewal of vows: In 2008, Obama did well among independent voters. In the 2010 election, independent voters helped elect Republicans. So the president and his aides are working to improve relations with that constituency. In tone and tenor the speech promises to be very much in keeping with the recalibration we've seen since the election that has included the deal with Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts, the hiring of several pragmatic Clinton-era veterans, and the focus on courting American business interests.

All of this may explain why recent polls show the president has made modest improvement with that constituency. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 40 percent of those questioned labeled the president a "moderate" compared to the 45 percent who saw him as a liberal, and 11 percent who viewed him as a conservative. That moderate number was his highest ever in the poll.

If the president rebuilds his relationship with independent voters, it may be because of a notion with which he doesn't exactly agree: that he somehow wandered off-course in his first two years in office and is now finding his way back. Obama's preferred argument is that he spent his first two years rescuing the economy, and now that he's done that, he can focus on growing it. Whichever explanation people buy—whether Obama 2.0 is the result of his own hand or circumstance—the message the president wants to convey is the same: the candidate who ran on change is also capable of it.

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