By Marc Thiessen
(Cross-posted from Politico)
If our practice in the Bush administration is any guide, President Barack Obama and his speechwriters sat down in the Oval Office soon after Thanksgiving to map out the broad themes of his first State of the Union address. By the time the president left for his Christmas holiday, a detailed outline — possibly, even a first draft — accompanied him on Air Force One to Hawaii.
In the wake of the seismic events in Detroit and Boston that followed, whatever Obama’s speechwriters sent him has most likely been turned into mulch by the shredding truck that pulls up on West Executive Avenue each night. The attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day and the popular uprising in Massachusetts that propelled Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate have exposed the twin vulnerabilities of the Obama presidency — vulnerabilities Obama must address in his speech Wednesday.
First, Obama faces growing discontent over his handling of terrorist detainees. Americans in large numbers believe that we should still be employing the enhanced interrogation techniques he has banned, and they oppose his plans to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, bring terrorists to the United States and try men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian courts. These concerns have been percolating for months, but they were crystallized for millions of Americans in a single moment, when, on orders from Attorney General Eric Holder, the FBI told the Christmas Day bomber: “You have the right to remain silent.”
The call to stop reading terrorists their Miranda rights became a rallying cry for Brown, whose chief strategist said, “From our own internal polling, the more potent issue here in Massachusetts was terrorism and the treatment of enemy combatants.” It will become an even more potent issue in the 2010 midterm elections — and the 2012 presidential race — if Obama does not change course.
Second, the president faces growing discontent with his approach to health care and jobs. Americans have been taken aback by the unprecedented miasma of spending in Washington and that policy’s failure to produce the jobs Obama promised. By large numbers, Americans oppose Obama’s plans for a second stimulus spending bill — so much so that Obama has stopped calling it a stimulus bill.
And millions of our citizens, including large numbers of independents, see Obama’s health care plan as a Trojan horse for the socialization of the largest sector of the U.S. economy. The election of Brown sent a signal to Washington that even in Massachusetts — a state Obama carried by 24 points — Americans are opposed to the approach the president is taking in these areas.
Wednesday night, Obama must address this discontent. The State of the Union is the one moment when citizens who do not normally follow the daily twists and turns of Washington tune in to take an assessment of their president. This makes the address a moment of both peril and opportunity for Obama. Will the president double-down on his current policies and try to explain to the American people why their opinions are wrong? Or will he tell Americans he has heard their message and explain how he is adjusting course?
On terrorism, Americans saw the near catastrophe on Christmas Day as a wake-up call and want some sign that Obama saw it that way as well. Will he continue to insist that we got vital intelligence from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in the 50-minute interrogation before he was given a lawyer? Or will he acknowledge that it was a mistake to read this terrorist suspect his Miranda rights and return to the promise he made on the campaign trail, declaring, “Do these folks deserve Miranda rights? Do they deserve to be treated like a shoplifter down the block? Of course not.”
Will the president defend his plan to try Mohammed and other 9/11 conspirators in civilian court? Or will he heed the popular will and put them back into the military commission system, where they belong?
On health care, will the president continue to insist that if Americans just understood what he was trying to do, they would support him? Or will he reach across the aisle and say: “Let’s start over with a bill that puts aside the issues that divide us and combines the best ideas Republicans and Democrats have put forward”?
If Obama were to embrace Republican ideas like expanding health savings accounts and creating association health plans — and combine them with popular Democratic ideas like requiring coverage for pre-existing conditions, providing subsides for low-income people and creating insurance exchanges — he could pass health care legislation that would be popular and bipartisan.
Obama has said that both parties agree on “about 80 percent of what needs to be done.” He should focus on enacting that 80 percent, instead of waging a losing war for the 20 percent the majority of Americans oppose.
After a similar repudiation at the polls, Obama’s Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton stood in the rostrum of the House and declared that “the era of Big Government is over.” This may be too much to expect from Obama. But the president needs to acknowledge and respond to the public discontent with his handling of terrorism and health care. If Obama stays the course, the insurrection we saw in Massachusetts will spread across the nation — and Republicans will ride these issues back to power.
Marc A. Thiessen was chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush and the lead writer on Bush’s last two State of the Union addresses. His new book, “Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack” has just been published by Regnery.
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