Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Ten Things to Watch for in the State of the Union

By Dan Gerstein

To kick off our State of the Union Blog-a-Thon, and set the stage for the discussion to come, we've put together a viewer's guide of ten things to watch for during Wednesday's speech.  The first five are more general, the second five more political, and all of them are meant to be non-partisan.  With that, here goes.

1) What IS the state of the union?  One of the trickiest challenges for a president and his speechwriters in tough economic times like these is choosing the right words to describe the country's present state.  Sound too optimistic and you risk looking out of touch.  Sound too dour and you risk depressing your audience.  How will Obama walk that fine rhetorical line and set the tone for the rest of his maiden SOTU?

2) What's the big news nugget? It's standard practice for modern presidents to announce at least one major new policy proposal in the SOTU to drive media coverage.  Obama has already trotted out two headline-generating ideas this week —a middle class relief package and a three-year domestic spending freeze —that we know he'll tout.  Does he have one or two more up his sleeve that he's saving for the hall?

3) What's Obama's line? Modern SOTUs rarely seem to produce enduring and/or presidency defining turns of phrases —one notable exception being Bill Clinton's declaration that the era of big government was over.  But they do usually yield a singular soundbite that the chattering classes seize on and the TV networks repeatedly loop.  Will Obama, with his acute sense of history, swing for the posterity fences?  If not, which piece of the speech will be replayed and remembered the next day?

4) Who's that girl (or guy)? Ever since Reagan, presidents have invited a special symbolic guest (or six) to sit in the First Lady's box for the SOTU as a way to put a human face on their agenda and get some easy associational love.  How will Obama use his human capital?  Will he opt for quality (focusing on one issue or theme) or quantity (multiple stories to touch on multiple challenges)?

5) Where's the drama? Another staple of the SOTU, especially in the blog era, is the soap opera sideshow.  One year it's Nancy Pelosi not standing for President Bush.  The next it's Hillary Clinton caught on camera rolling her eyes at W.  Then it's Hillary being snubbed by then-Senator Obama, her campaign rival.  Who will be this year's distraction?  Will there be another Joe Wilson moment? Or will the riding high Republicans be on their best behavior?

6) How's my posture?  With Democrats reeling from the Scott Brown Mass-acre, and the Obama's approval numbers dipping below 50 percent, the president comes into the SOTU under tremendous and conflicting pressure to change the tenor of his leadership.  The left is calling for more combativeness and principle; moderates are seeking more modesty and pragmatism.  What turn and tone will Obama take?  Will he split the difference — or split his party?

7) Who will take the blame?  The common message coming out of Massachusetts, according to many analysts, is that Washington still doesn't work; that most voters in the broad middle feel like nothing has change; and that nothing, as a result, is getting done on the economy.  Will Obama validate that frustration by taking some measure of responsibility for it?  Or will he continue, much to the consternation of Republicans, to emphasize the problems he inherited and implicitly (if not explicitly) point the finger at the Bush Administration?

8) Does he feel our pain?  The White House clearly sees the SOTU as a pivot point to refocus on the economy.  Hence the coordinated roll out of the two big policy pieces this week on the middle class and deficit reduction.  But will those new policy nuggets be enough to win back the public's confidence — in particular the salty independents who decided the Massachusetts Senate election?  What else can Obama, who has often struggled to connect with working class voters, say and do to communicate that he gets what they are going through and shares their priorities?

9) What's the deal on health care?  While the economy will be the central focus of the speech, the people in the room and the diehard activists watching will be looking first and foremost for the President to clarify which way he wants to go on health care reform.  Will he unequivocally call for passage of a comprehensive coverage bill like the one he was negotiating with House or Senate leaders before the Brown Mass-acre — and reassure his dispirited base?  Or will he signal that he's open to working out a scaled back plan that could get a handful of moderate Republican votes?

10) How much foreign policy is enough?  With the economy dominating the public's list of concerns, and health care dominating Washington's attention, there's an expectation that Obama's speech will be heavy on domestic issues and light on international ones.  But national security is clearly top of mind for this president, who spent months trying to find the right strategy for the deteriorating war in Afghanistan and is still dealing with the fallout of the Christmas bombing attempt in Detroit.  How will he balance those priorities in time and tone?

Stay tuned here for some predictions.

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