The State of the Union speech is, admittedly, one of the worst speeches to have to deliver on the planet. Every White House speech-writer will tell you they begin with the idea that, this year, the speech will not turn into a laundry list, but each year, a laundry list it becomes. Additionally, since these speeches have been broadcast, the president has two audiences, the members of Congress in the room and the television audience outside, and it is often difficult to speak to both groups at the same time.
In the past couple of days, the White House has sent some mixed signals. All agree and understand that the State of the Union speech must be an exhortation, but the word has a certain ambivalence. My dictionary says the verb means "to urge earnestly by advice, warning, etc." In terms of political leadership, there is a world of difference between using advice to urge and using a threat to urge. Usually, presidents are well advised to avoid threats in such speeches, but already, the White House is indicating that if Congress sits on its hands, the president is prepared to act using executive authority. This is the worst kind of threat, one with little substance. There are many things a president can do on his own authority, but most of them have to do with foreign policy, and I can't think of anyone who believes foreign policy will drive the 2014 midterm elections or that such issues are the ones President Barack Obama cares about most.
The president should use tonight's speech to combine some key statements of fact with forceful moral arguments. Political success is achieved when moral arguments assemble facts in a compelling way. Few politicians had President Bill Clinton's facility for weaving the two together, but Obama should try. The overall tone should be one of encouragement not only because that works better than threats but because it mirrors the national mood. The State of the Union is better than it was last year, and much better than it was in 2009, but the Union can do better and everyone knows it.
The first thing Obama must do is state the facts that frame the narrative. For example, if you listen to Fox News, you will know that this has been the most anemic recovery from a recession since the Depression. This calls for a "yes, but." That fact is true, but it compares an apple and an orange. The economic recession of 2008, which Obama inherited, was the worst recession since the Depression and had a different character. In the early 1980s, the recession was a planned objective of the Fed, trying to squeeze inflation out of the system. The recession at the end of Clinton's term was a result of the dot-com bubble bursting, and its scope was confined. The 2008 recession shook the economy to its core. Of course it has taken longer to recover.
President Obama must face the troubles with the Affordable Care Act head-on. Here we see the need for a second "yes, but." Obama must acknowledge that the rollout of the ACA has been a disaster but that any such complex program is bound to have difficulties at first. We have to stick with it. He should also point out that complexities of the ACA rollout are largely because it is not -- repeat, not -- socialized medicine or a federal government takeover of the industry. The reforms are reforms of the private sector insurance market, all with a healthy dose of federalism. I thought Republicans liked the private sector and federalism. He should encourage more people to sign up, and he should encourage more governors to work with the Department of Health and Human Services to set up their own exchanges and expand Medicaid in their states. Wouldn't it be nice if he announced he was firing HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius! (A person can dream.)
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On foreign policy, I am not sure what the president should say. His foreign policy seems to be a congeries of incoherent, ever-fading red lines, combined with an unwillingness to articulate any moral argument once he leaves our shores. So we move heaven and earth to get the Syrians to give up their chemical weapons and sleep well now that President Bashar Assad is only killing his people with nonchemical weapons. We make nice with Iran so that it will halt its nuclear program and turn a blind eye to its support for terrorism throughout the region. Our friends do not trust us. Our foes do not fear us. I know Obama was dealt a bad hand, but did anyone anticipate the decline of U.S. influence, military or moral influence that we have seen on his watch?
In this morning's Washington Post, Zachary Goldfarb reports, "In recent weeks, some Democratic lawmakers and strategists have urged the White House to focus less on academic-sounding discussions of income inequality and to simplify Obama's message to reflect the everyday concerns of Americans." I am all for shedding the "academic-sounding" tone that so often haunts Obama's speeches, but the issue of income inequality should be, must be, the central focus of his speech. The facts speak for themselves, although they should concisely be set forth. If he wants to make Joe Biden's day, he can include a line about how income inequality has grown in the past 30 years no matter which party controlled the White House. But facts are not enough.
Obama must make a moral argument about why income inequality matters. He should be borrowing heavily from Pope Francis. The central issue is, to paraphrase the Master, does the economy work for man, or does man work for the economy? If the current economy is rigged so that the poor get poorer, the middle class can move down but not up, and the rich suck up all the economic gains of increased productivity like a giant, greedy vacuum, is that how the economy should be rigged? Raising the minimum wage will certainly raise wage levels across the board for workers, a fact Obama should reiterate, but he must make the moral argument that any man or woman who works 40 hours should not be consigned to poverty. Obama should not be afraid to tap into the populist sentiment that too many Clinton Democrats have ignored: Working-class Americans are as distrustful of big business as they are of big government. If this be class warfare, make the most of it.
Most importantly, President Obama, who is said to meet regularly with presidential historians, must have grasped that the promise of social mobility is the deepest chord in the American national character. If that promise is no more, than the vaunted American Dream is no more. Obama should strike that chord as eloquently and forcefully as he can.
I would like to hope that the president would focus on poverty, but we have been disappointed hoping he would provide such focus before. Similarly, I wish he would make a strong defense of human rights as a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, but we have been disappointed before, and the people of Syria, Iran and Egypt have paid the price.
Still, if the president can mount a compelling moral and factual argument for confronting the issue of income inequality in America, I will be happy. I fear, as clearly the strategists fear, that Professor Obama will be at the podium tonight, not President Obama, that his speech will be abstract and articulate, not earthy and accessible, that he will be confrontational at a time when he needs House Republicans to achieve goals without which his tenure will be judged a failure. I fear that Obama's disdain for those sitting in front of him, Democrats and Republicans, will interfere with his delivery as it has in the past. It is a strange bird who is more at home addressing hundreds of thousands in Berlin than a roomful of fellow politicians in Washington, but Obama is a strange bird. Tonight, we hope that bird finds a song it can sing.
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