The following was written before the speech:
President Obama's first "State of the Union" is this evening. The main question I have is whether or not he will change the tone?
I think the biggest challenge Obama has tonight is changing the tone on three points:
- Inclusiveness & True Bipartisanship. I believe Obama desperately needs to deliver the bipartisan tone that he promised during the campaign and which has not been visible since his inauguration. That doesn't mean capitulating to Republicans; we know he's a Democrat. But he needs to dispense with the confrontational rhetoric. Despite all the claims of him being bipartisan or post-partisan, he hasn't been (here and here, to cite a couple examples). Again, he doesn't have to agree with Republicans... but if he wants to really change the tone, his speech should be one that everyone can identify with. It's simply counterproductive to polarize Americans during a crisis. He needs to stop trying to assign blame to the previous administration; that just fires up the emotions and makes working together more difficult. Besides, we already know that's what he thinks. If he wants to move forward together then he should at least get rid of the antagonistic content. That really shouldn't he hard for him to do--if only for just the hour that the speech lasts. And he'll do it if he's serious about working with Republicans. I think this point is extremely important.
- Positive on the Economy. As I've been saying for weeks (and which President Clinton said last week), Obama needs to be very positive on the economy. It shouldn't have to be a balance between honesty and hope but rather it should be about honest hope. The last few weeks the president has come off as aggressive but unsure of himself and his plans; it has made him sound angry and possibly clueless. He's also made a point of scaring Americans into believing the worst about this economy, and the public has responded with increasing consumer pessimism and a 25% drop in the market since his election. Tonight he needs to project a calm confidence of a leader that is certain of himself, his policies, and his country. It'd still come off as a little hypocritical given his doomsday predictions of the last few weeks, but he has to start turning his rhetoric around at some point. Tonight should be the night.
- Details. Depending on how well he does the two items above, I think this third one is optional. But it'd sure be nice. We're a month into this administration and we still don't know what its real solution and plan is. Obama needs to start delivering some details rather than just promising them. The above two points would breed a lot of positivity in the country that would help all by itself. But at some point the words need to give way to actions, and we need details of what those actions will be.
So that's what I'm looking for tonight. I think what Obama says tonight could very well make or break the tone of his presidency at least through the 2010 mid-terms.
After I read the transcript and then watch the speech later this evening, I'll continue my comments below...
The following was written after the speech:
On issue #1 (inclusiveness), the president did
tone down the rhetoric. There were still a few scattered "inherited this mess" and "the last 10 years" comments, but at least they were fewer.
On issue #2 (positive about the economy), I wouldn't go that far. At least he wasn't as apocalyptic as he has been the last few weeks. But I didn't really hear anything in the speech that would really make me feel more confident about the economy nor gave me any reassurance that he really has a plan on how
to address the problems in the financial sector. If there's a plan, the administration still doesn't seem to be sharing it. Other than letting us know it'll probably cost more than what's been considered to-date.
Other than that, I'd just say I found it generally disturbing how little time he spent on the current economic situation. Instead, he acknowledged the crisis, didn't give us any real reason to feel more confident about its resolution, and then launched into the same spending priorities he had on the campaign: health care reform, alternative energy, and education. Oh, and tax increases during a recession as well as the potential burden of a carbon cap-and-trade system.
In other words, we're in a recession and he's going to raise taxes and increase energy costs with cap-and-trade. And we have a trillion dollar deficit but it sounds like he wants to spend even more money on health care, education, and alternative energy. He said everyone would have to sacrifice, even him, but at first glance it doesn't seem like he's sacrificed anything in his agenda.
All in all I'd consider this another missed opportunity. While he succeeded at toning down the rhetoric, he didn't do much to inspire confidence in the economy, he didn't say anything that would lead us to believe he has a good plan for the banking industry, he raised the specter of more
government spending rather than improved fiscal responsibility, and threatened a tax increase as well as the potential burden of a carbon cap-and-trade system... during a recession.
I honestly was hoping for a lot better.
Oh, and he brought up the myth of the Clinton surplus
which is always a good way to undermine the credibility of a speaker.