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?

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama walks along the West Wing Colonnade toward the Oval Office of the White House in Washington Wednesday ahead of his State of the Union address.

Barack Obama delivers his first State of the Union address Wednesday night at a low point in his presidency.

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.

Obama has also pledged to freeze discretionary nondefense spending for three years. But he plans to announce increased spending on education, and he backs a new jobs package in Congress, so the message on fiscal discipline will be mixed at best. The best he can hope for is to win back some of the independent voters who have steadily left his side over the past year. Republicans have hardened their opposition as his popularity ratings have fallen.

4. Does Obama try again to change the tone in Washington? His oft-repeated campaign pledge to move beyond business as usual and toward a “postpartisan politics,” barely got off the ground in his first year. Some Republicans tried to influence healthcare reform, but gave up. For the most part, the lack of effort has been mutual: Republicans have stood back with their hands folded across their chests as Democrats sat behind closed doors and crafted legislation.

Now that the 60-vote Senate supermajority is gone – and along with it, the ability to halt filibusters just with Democratic votes – Obama has no choice but to reach across the aisle again. There could be an upside to this, Vice President Joe Biden told party contributors on Tuesday. Now Republicans will be held accountable, too.

5. Will anyone heckle? Rep. Joe Wilson (R) of South Carolina yelled “you lie” at Obama when the president addressed a joint session of Congress on healthcare last September. The incident turned into a fundraising bonanza for both Mr. Wilson and his main Democratic opponent in the next election.

But if someone tries that Wednesday night, it would probably backfire, analysts say. Obama is more politically vulnerable than he was last fall, and so Republicans need to keep the story focused on the president, says William Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar and former Clinton White House policy director.

“If someone heckles him, the story is more about comity than Obama,” says Mr. Galston. “So at this point, I don’t think it’s useful for [the Republicans], even in the most cynical calculation.”


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