Five Things to Watch for in the State of the Union

Given the blizzard of White House briefings to eager reporters in recent days, we already have some sense of what the president will say in tonight’s State of the Union address. But in considering the speech, we shouldn’t forget to judge it in its full political context—most of all, the fact that this is an election year. Here are five things to listen for:

For better or worse, an incumbent president’s record is at the heart of his reelection prospects. President Obama cannot run away from his record; he must run on it. And he cannot make the 2012 election a contest between two futures—unless and until he provides a persuasive narrative of the economic situation he inherited and his response to it since he assumed office. That narrative provides the indispensible foundation for his forward-leaning proposals, and for the contrast he wants to draw with the Republicans. He cannot say, as Bill Clinton did in his 1996 State of the Union address, that “Our economy is the healthiest it has been in three decades.” Nor can he say what Ronald Reagan did in 1984, that “America is much improved.” What he can say is that the difficult, unpopular decisions he made at the beginning of his presidency—such as the successful rescue of GM and Chrysler—saved the country from a second Great Depression and began to lay the foundation for a solid recovery. We’re on the right track, he could continue, but we’re not moving down it fast enough. The imperative is not to change course, but rather to speed up, and that is the administration’s principal focus.

The American people know that the U.S. economy has changed and that the future “success story” will differ from those in the past. The twin forces of globalization and technological innovation have depressed economic prospects, not only for the poorly educated, but also for millions of Americans who graduated from high school and went on to get a year or two of post-secondary education or training. Obama must speak to this vague but powerful sense of a global shift and chart a plausible path that points toward new jobs and rising incomes.

The plight of hard-working, hard-pressed Americans—those struggling to remain in the middle class and those struggling get there—must be front and center. And the president must address it in the right way. A December 16 Gallup survey found that while 82 percent of Americans believe that it’s extremely or very important to expand the economy and 70 percent believe that it’s extremely or very important to increase equality of opportunity for people to get ahead, only 46 percent believe that about reducing the gap between the rich and the poor. While 72 percent of Democrats want government to emphasize measures to reduce inequality, only 43 percent of independents agree. And 52 percent of Americans say that “the fact that some people in the United States are rich and others are poor” is acceptable, actually up from 45 percent in 1998. A Pew survey released on December 16 found 58 percent of Americans rejecting the view that America is divided into “haves” and “have-nots.” Another Pew survey released January 23rd found 86 percent of Americans giving “top priority” to strengthening the nation’s economy and 82 percent to improving the job situation, versus 52 percent for dealing with the problems of the poor and needy. A majority of Americans will support requiring the wealthy to pay their fair share (that is, higher taxes)—but not in the name of reducing inequality. Obama’s speech must address middle class anxieties, but without triggering long-standing middle class fears about redistributive measures that could deepen their plight. 

Public trust in our governing institutions is at or near all-time lows. Obama should cite the steps he has already taken to reform government and underscore his determination to expand the scope and the speed of these initiatives. However severe our problems may be, the American people will not accept an ambitious program of activist government unless they believe that our governing institutions can promote public purposes effectively and efficiently. Right now they don’t.

Barack Obama is not just a candidate; he’s the president, and the people expect him to speak as the president. He came to office pledging to reduce partisan divisions, a promise the people have not forgotten and continue to value. So while the president is free to discuss past disagreements with the Republicans, he is not free to abandon hope of future cooperation with them. He would be well advised to reach out his hand, however low the odds that anyone on the other side of the aisle will grasp it. The people already see Republicans as more responsible for the politics of polarization and gridlock, and they’ll give the president credit for good-faith efforts to change it.