On the heels of electoral victory, President Obama's State of the Union address could go in one of two directions: a mandate approach or a problem-solver approach.
The first is what I fear: A divisive speech based on his 3 million vote win over Gov. Mitt Romney, which the president seemingly views as a mandate. Under this mandate approach, the president will stress divisive social issues, aggressive investments and spending initiatives and ignore the deficit, including the work of his Bipartisan Debt Commission and the imminent threat of entitlements.
The mandate approach relies on dividing the nation, ensuring conflict and virtually guaranteeing that we will face a bumpy four years where the nation and its two parties totally fail to address the mounting financial challenges which will cripple our children's future. In other words: more of the same.
President Obama can challenge all of us to step forward with ideas on how we can address our financial problems. He can declare that we will together solve this problem because we are all Americans and that is what we do.
The problem-solver approach, in contrast, is the one I hope the president chooses. As a leader of the entire nation, President Obama could begin with an honest discussion of our biggest issues. The president would in clear, stark and understandable terms – and using real projections – describe the financial situation our children will face as we cannot fulfill the promises we made to ourselves.
After laying out the facts, the president should challenge every American to help solve our problems. He can actually introduce a phrase few politicians use these days: "shared sacrifice.” He can explain that we must all expect less from and give more to our nation in the future. The president can challenge all of us to step forward with ideas on how we can address our financial problems. He can declare that we will together solve this problem because we are all Americans and that is what we do.
Under this approach the president can still lay out his agenda on immigration, taxes, trade and education, while focusing on broader, unifying themes of investment, sacrifice and economic growth.
Tuesday night, the president will look out at his congressional audience and see dozens of Democratic and Republican legislators wearing special "Problem Solver" buttons. Initiated by the bipartisan group, No Labels, the legislators wearing these buttons are expressing their commitment to work across party lines to make the tough decisions America needs right now.
The president should embrace this approach, not only in Tuesday night's rhetoric, but in tomorrow's action. It may not win him much applause from the hard-line Democrats in post-speech analysis, but it will put him on the path to creating the legacy he must want as the president who got America back on track by solving problems together.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)™, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,200 consumer technology companies, and a NYT best-selling author.