In the strictest sense, the State of the Union is not a particularly important speech. The remarks given tonight by President Barack Obama will largely be a laundry list of proposals for the Congress to take up alongside statements of what he intends for the executive branch to do over the next twelve months.
If recent history is any guide, much of what he says tonight will be inoperative by the time the speech is over. As much as it appears to be about policy, the State of the Union’s purpose is largely political. It is an opportunity for the president to been seen by the electorate as the leader of the government and, sometimes, to been seen facing down a Congress controlled by the other party, as was the case with Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, among others.
This one speech will not revive the president’s lagging fortunes – some of the latest media polls show the streams have crossed and that more people now disapprove (within the margin or error) of his performance in office than disapprove. Nor will it launch a political comeback by propelling his numbers back into the lower stratosphere, where they rested comfortable during his first months in office.
What it will do is reinforce the electorate’s attitudes toward Obama such that a good speech will be marginally helpful while a bad speech may gently accelerate the decline already underway.
If Obama uses the opportunity given him tonight to draw new attention to the areas in which he has already stumbled, on health care and the environment, for example, it will be a bad speech.
If Obama uses the speech as an opportunity to once again dwell on the problems he inherited from the previous administration without offering much in the way of new ideas and concrete solutions, it will be a bad speech.
If Obama uses the speech to showcase reforms that are not really reforms – like the spending freeze trial balloon floated early in the week – and they can be easily dissected by the Republicans, it will be a bad speech.
If Obama uses the speech to talk about the need to expand the size of government even further while neglecting to address the record levels of debt he has run up during his first year in office, it will be a bad speech.
And if Obama uses the speech as an opportunity to sound a note of phony populism, attacking the very institutions he has spent much of his first year in office trying to save from financial ruin, it will be a bad speech.
If, on the other hand, Obama uses the State of the Union as a way to demonstrate that he has heard the American people and will, henceforth, moderate his course, it will be a good speech.
If Obama uses the speech to make an honest effort to set aside the partisanship that has marked his first term, promising to work with the Republicans in the future to find real solutions to the problems facing America, it will be a good speech.
If Obama can provide real examples of ways he is willing to move to the center, perhaps by embracing several Republican initiatives on taxes, spending and the true size of government, then it will be – for him and for the country -- a good speech.
The political stakes are high, perhaps as high as they have ever been for president just beginning his second year in office. Most poll numbers show the country ready to embrace the Republicans once again as a way to voice their continuing frustration with Washington. One poll just released by National Public Radio shows the GOP enjoys a 5 point lead over the Democrats on the generic ballot test, something of a remarkable rebirth for a party many assumed all but dead after the 2008 election. Even more telling, says pollster Glenn Bolger, the lead doubles when voter interest in the upcoming midterm elections is factored in.
“We saw that take effect in Virginia; we saw it took effect in [the] New Jersey gubernatorial race; and we saw it take effect in the Massachusetts Senate race as well," Bolger says.
Ultimately, Obama’s first State of the Union speech will be measured in the way it leaves Obama positioned. If he comes across as an advocate for the kind of change people want, especially in Washington, it will be a good speech. If he continues to press ahead on his current course, or anything close to it, he will have failed.
Peter Roff is a contributing editor to U.S. News & World Report. He is a former senior political editor for United Press International.