Five things to look for in Obama State of the Union address
President Obama delivers his State of the Union address at a political low point. He needs to buck up his party and soothe a frustrated electorate. Will he adopt his new fighting persona? Will anyone heckle him?
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His signature domestic initiative, healthcare reform, is in limbo at best. Unemployment remains stubbornly high. And his Democratic majority in Congress sits dispirited after seeing a Republican snatch the seat of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.
President Obama faces a multifold task: to buck up his own party, lay out a renewed policy agenda, and reassure an increasingly angry and frustrated American people. Here are five points to watch for as he delivers his speech (at 9 p.m. Eastern time).
1. How many times Obama uses the word “fight.” At a town hall last Friday in Ohio, he used the word 20 times – much of the time variations on “I won’t stop fighting for you.” His newly pugilistic rhetoric comes amid a rise in populism among voters, after a year in which many felt he was doing more for Wall Street than Main Street.
All the fight talk is a way of saying, “I hear you.” It also raises the expectation that he will be tougher in asserting himself with Congress. Part of the one-year assessment of Obama’s presidency is that no one is afraid of him. He lays down deadlines that are ignored. He can be vague about what he really wants. So if he doesn’t match his new rhetoric with actions, he could erode the goodwill that he has.
2. What Obama says about healthcare reform. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that she still thinks the Democrats could pass something. This followed less optimistic comments from other Democratic congressional leaders Tuesday. In recent days, Obama has sent mixed signals about how to proceed. In one interview, he suggested a pared down version comprised of the more popular aspects; then he backtracked and stood by comprehensive reform.
In his speech Wednesday, Obama could clarify what exactly he now proposes. If he chooses to speak in more general terms – as some aides have suggested he will do – then he can at least convey through tone and body language just how serious he is about passing something.
3. How much Obama reaches out to angry populists. Beyond his use of the word “fight,” Obama can telegraph a message to Main Street through policies. He has already laid out a five-point plan to help the middle class, which he is expected to reprise Wednesday night. He will also respond to growing anxiety over the nation’s fiscal health by announcing a bipartisan commission on the federal debt. Obama will establish such a commission by executive order, after supporters failed Tuesday in the Senate to attract enough support.