If annual State of the Union presidential messages to Congress were thought of as made in Hollywood (which, in a way, they are), then the Sunday news shows ahead of that event are the trailers.
Sure, there may be some unexpected fireworks Tuesday night when President Obama delivers his fifth official address on the state of the Union.
Who can forget Rep. Joe Wilson (R) of South Carolina bellowing “You lie!” during a joint address to Congress by Mr. Obama in 2009, for which Mr. Wilson was formally rebuked by the House of Representatives? Or US Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito – in his sober black robe, sitting right down there in front – mouthing the words “Simply not true” when Obama took the high court to task for its decision on campaign finance?
But in previews of the speech, both sides are sticking to script – laying out positions, trying to shape the analysis and commentary that will follow.
First Republicans, whose rebuttal right after Obama speaks will be given by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington State, the highest-ranking woman in the House of Representatives.
In what amounted to a “prebuttal” Saturday, Sen. Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri said Obama has "a lot of explaining to do."
"If all he has to offer is more of the same, or if he refuses to acknowledge that his own policies have failed to work, the president is simply doing what many failed leaders have done before him: trying to set one group of Americans against another group of Americans," Senator Blunt said. "We don't need more class warfare, and we don't need more interference from Washington.”
I wouldn’t expect to hear Obama talk much about “failed” policies, say, the deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, or the initial mess with the Affordable Care Act's website.
But Blunt’s reference to “class warfare” and “interference from Washington” hints at the direction Obama is likely to take in his speech and beyond.
He can be expected to use “his pen and his phone, to try to move the ball forward,” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said on CNN Sunday. In other words, if he can’t be any more persuasive than he has been with congressional Republicans, he will use his pen to sign executive orders making things happen on his own. (See Monitor White House correspondent Linda Feldmann’s cover story “Is Barack Obama an imperial president?”)
In a rare Sunday news show appearance, White House press secretary Jay Carney said on ABC's "This Week," “The president sees this as a year of action, to work with Congress where he can and to bypass Congress where necessary. To lift folks who want to come up into the middle class.”
To many Republicans (like Blunt), what they hear when Obama talks about lifting up folks into the middle class – especially any reference to “inequality” – is “class warfare.”
Obama has called inequality in America the “defining issue of our time.” And although you may hear the words “opportunity” and "mobility" more than “inequality” in his speech, the intent is the same.
“The address will include a ‘healthy dose’ of the income inequality message the White House has focused on in recent weeks, according to one senior administration official familiar with the text,” The Hill newspaper reports.
“The president, who has yet to add to the big legislative accomplishments of his first term, will call for raising the minimum wage to $10 per hour and extending federal unemployment benefits that expired last month,” according to this report. “He will also discuss energy and college affordability, two other issues that relate to the economic mobility message that is a major White House theme ahead of this year’s midterm elections.”
Obama’s poll numbers have gone way down since his reelection in 2012. Republicans seem inclined to wait him out, strengthening their congressional power this year and looking ahead to 2016.
So for a president headed toward lame-duck status, this State of the Union message to Congress and to American voters may be more important than ever.