To Succeed, Obama's State of the Union Needs Optimism

At center stage, the president has every reason to turn in a command performance tonight.

By + More

To be magisterial, President Obama must speak from his head and his heart tonight in the Capitol as he addresses Congress and the nation in the annual State of the Union speech.

To give a great soaring speech, he must blend poetry into the prose.

[Take the poll: What should Obama's State of the Union focus be?]

Campaigning for office, he was often more eloquent, with words more heartfelt, than we've heard during his two-year presidency. From his inaugural address on, he was fairly one-note through hard times until the Arizona shooting rampage, when he fittingly captured our collective shock and sorrow. Showing his heart to the American people may be why his approval rating rose this month.

So to continue in that direction, he must look over the partisan divide in the chamber, the incoming fire of the new House Republicans and Tea Partyers, and serenely talk to you, me, and fellow Americans. Then get a little worked up about the stakes involved in the state of things. He should not fail to remind us we are still in a costly war in Afghanistan and to level with citizens about the timetable. And another well-deserved dig at the Supreme Court would not go amiss. [Take the poll: Should Supreme Court justices attend the State of the Union?]

Now at the mid-point, Obama has a tremendous chance to consolidate all sides of self we've seen so far and make them fit together. For this rather private man, it will be a bit of a stretch to go more public and open up to invite us in. Yet that is the task.

The country will be watching to see if the president can combine emotion and reason, grief and passion, and determination with collegiality, to name a few opposites. He has to hold them in his hand and then, with rhetorical sleight of hand, leave us willing to believe in his vision and optimism.

For an American president to succeed for the ages, nothing matters more than optimism. Franklin D. Roosevelt managed to convey it just with his jaunty tone and turn of phrase during dark hours of history. Ronald Reagan was also a master of the art of optimism. Lincoln is known as a "tragic optimist" because he believed the Union would prevail despite the Civil War bloodshed. The failure to inspire optimism, that signature American trait, was perhaps the fatal flaw of Jimmy Carter's presidency.

Presidents are still symbolic vessels for the republic's psyche. In a way, they are a looking glass for how we see ourselves. Image and performance art aren't everything, but they count for a great deal. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

Obama has much of this mastered, and tonight is showtime. He must depart from his customary cerebral mode and show plowshares of passion and compassion, show that he cares about our destiny—not abstractly, but in a hands-on practical sense. It was Harold Ickes, Sr., an FDR New Dealer, who said people have to eat three times a day. For Obama, joblessness is an everyday plight he has yet to publicly confront.

Finally, since the Super Bowl is much on our minds, comes the question of offense or defense: Which should the president play this evening? Despite the Democratic loss of the House, I say civility requires a mighty offense with a hint of a smile on his face, daring opponents to cross him. The newly arrived opposition needs to be a bit humbled by the grandeur of his office.

After all, Obama is the president of the United States of America, and this pageant of democracy is the closest we come to political opera. At center stage, the president has every reason to turn in a command performance.

  • Take the poll: What should Obama's State of the Union focus be?
  • Take the poll: Should Supreme Court justices attend the State of the Union?
  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.