State of the Union Is High Risk, Low Reward for Obama

For Obama it's been all “my way or the highway”--and a federally constructed highway at that.

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With his approval numbers gently rebounding in the aftermath of his Tucson speech, President Barack Obama has been presented with the opportunity to use Tuesday night’s State of the Union address to redefine his presidency.

Independents, the voter bloc that right now holds the “keys to the kingdom” in U.S. politics, have been particularly approving of his remarks at the memorial service. This comes as little surprise as Obama is at his best when given the opportunity to enunciate high-minded themes that transcend the politics of the moment.

Unfortunately for him, the State of the Union is all about the politics of the moment, which means we can expect the same kind of laundry list that panders to special interest that any president, Democrat or Republican, is called upon to give in this setting. And that means he has plenty of opportunity to lose support and very little to gain it. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

One can expect that he will refer to the Arizona tragedy as part of an overall theme of “bringing the nation together,” as he promised he would do during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Over the past two years, however, he has done anything but--often behaving in a monopartisan and autocratic fashion when dealing with Congress. Throughout the debate on most of the big issues, including the extension of current tax rates, the need to create jobs, the stimulus package, the cap and trade energy tax plan, the effort to regulate the Internet for the first time, or to effectively end the use of the secret ballot in union-organizing elections and, most obviously, healthcare, Obama has failed to seek meaningful input from those in opposition to the direction he wanted to go. For him it was all “my way or the highway”--and a federally constructed highway at that. [See 2010: The Year in Cartoons.]

It is almost certain that he will devote a goodly portion of the speech to the issue of jobs. Polling data, both private and public from a variety of sources, indicate it is the number one issue on the minds of most Americans. The efforts he has backed thus far to create them have failed. Unemployment broke through the 8 percent ceiling he established in the stimulus debate and has remained high throughout his presidency. It is, as one private pollster puts it, “the fire on the roof.” It has the attention of the American people and they are demanding action--as House Speaker John Boehner and other Republicans promised during the 2010 campaign--rather than blame, which was the Democrats unsuccessful strategy during the recent election. [See editorial cartoons about the economy.]

Obama will talk about jobs and what he wants to do to create them. The problem is, as the Republicans will no doubt point out, is that as his ideas haven’t worked so far there is no reason to expect that they will work now.

Whatever positives he might develop during the State of the Union will also be offset by the need to pander to his base. He will almost certainly present a list of initiatives for the next year that make his left-liberal base cheer but land with a resounding “thud” across the rest of the electorate. [See a U.S. News slide show of the 10 worst presidents.]

The problem, as has been written before, is that Obama is not as good at talking about policy as he is at hitting the high notes. “Campaign Obama” is quite different from “President Obama”--and for one very simple reason: when campaign he can play to the center; when governing he has to play to the left.

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