By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Tonight at his second State of the Union address, President Barack Obama needs to roll out something humble to the American people, add some self-deprecating charm, then pinch with a dash of sorrow and sprinkle with old-fashioned optimism. At the end of the day, baking this classic pie may be the way to get out of the populist lock-up by sunrise.
(Consult Master Chef Bill Clinton if there are any doubts about my pie recipe. Nobody equals him for wooing a world of woe during a State of the Union Address.)
Lately, the meta-message from the Obama White House goes something like this: "Hey, I never promised you a Rose Garden, or a public option, or another Democratic senator from Massachusetts, or that this recession would ever end."
At a point of loss writ large just a year after his shimmering presidency began, Obama needs to show the American people a side they haven't met before. Not the dazzling wordsmith on the world stage in Oslo or Berlin. Not the young man with a fabulous future ahead. Not the Chicago maestro of cool. All that loses charm if your house or job are on the line, or if your son or daughter is deployed to serve in the renewed Afghanistan war. A canny judge of character, the American people will look for three other components in Obama's speech on the world state tonight: resilience, resolve and empathy. He has never had a chance to demonstrate these fully before now, because he's never been down this low. His critics are speaking loudly, and his friends are speaking softly. All will be watching to see if he is a man of all seasons, set to overcome mistakes because he understands why he made them. Finally, Obama must project the sense he is personally touched by the human toll taken by the high jobless figures for much of the year past.
Washington's chattering class appears to agree if Obama changes to a "populist" strategy in this annual ritual, then they will give him a pass. Whether a tax credit on child care is populist or a sensible bow to two-earner middle-class families, count me in. I fail to see, though, how the anxious broad middle swath of America is going to get behind a spending freeze on domestic spending, when military and "homeland security" are excepted.
Dollars to donuts, the only note that will sound sweet to the people's ears is a jobs initiative.
President Clinton gave command performances at his State of the Union addresses, even when he was down and out. After the 1994 Republican takeover of both houses of Congress, he declared, "The era of big government is over." Later he went out and faced friends and enemies in the Capitol after news of a sex scandal broke in January 1998. Because he showed a bad fall could not break him, most were willing to give him another chance in the court of public opinion.
Whether the elegant, cerebral Obama is meant to be a populist is not clear. But one thing is for sure: a bit of humble pie at the right time and place never hurt an American president.