State of the Union Preview: Obama’s Unofficial 2012 Kickoff

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How many memorable State of the Union speeches can you think of? I can conjure just three indelible moments from the past 20 years. There’s Bill Clinton’s 1993 vow, complete with theatrical pen-wave, to veto any health insurance bill lacking universal coverage. Chastened by the Republican Revolution two years later, Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over.” And in early 2002 George Bush addressed a nation still traumatized after 9/11 and fatefully warned that an “axis of evil” menaced America.

The truth is that, for all the pomp and circumstance, State of the Union speeches tend to be small-bore affairs that make headlines but not history. They are occasions for tactical positioning and debate-framing.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t important. The short term matters, too. And that may be especially true at this transitional—and perhaps pivotal—moment in Barack Obama’s presidency. Over the past three months Obama has resurrected a presidency that seemed in danger of failure. With his successes in the lame duck Congress last month, his winning response to the Tucson massacre, and a steady new trickle of economic optimism, he has reclaimed some of the political capital snatched from him in the November elections. Witness his rising approval rating, and the way Republicans–having enjoyed their cathartic vote to repeal health care in the House—are now arguing amongst themselves about what budget cuts they actually dare to enact.

But this remains a fragile political moment for the president. The economic recovery is painfully slow. The public is still skeptical about big government and debt-fueled spending. The war in Afghanistan is unpopular, Middle East peace is elusive as ever, and China seems to be overtaking the U.S. on the global stage.

To continue on his sure-footed path, Obama will have to address all these problems—and demonstrate he’s in a better position to handle them than his Republican adversaries. This will, in effect, be Obama’s opening pitch for re-election in the 2012 presidential campaign. With that in mind, here are three central themes—related to the economy, foreign policy, and political discourse itself—to watch for tonight:

1. The Budget Triple Lindy: When it comes to the budget and economy, Obama will have to perform a delicate dance. He’ll want to boast about the economy’s gradual comeback while also showing he understands how grim it still feels for millions of Americans. He’ll want to instill come consumer optimism (the cheapest form of stimulus, as Larry Summers likes to say) without repeating his spring 2010 mistake of raising false hopes about the recovery.

Talking about the budget will be even trickier. Advance previews from the White House indicate that Obama will try to make three simultaneous points, all of which feel in tension with one another. One is that America needs a new round of “investment”—i.e. spending on infrastructure, innovation and education—to keep our economy on a strong and globally competitive foundation. That said, Obama will argue that we simultaneously need to impose fiscal discipline to reign in our swelling debt. But point three is that such discipline has to be imposed over the long term. That the deep and immediate budget cuts proposed by conservative Republicans, he will argue, threaten to have an anti-stimulative effect that will harm the economy.

That’s a treacherous dance worthy of Black Swan. Which is one reason Obama might want to change the subject to the GOP’s fiscal stewardship. Specifically, he could take the advice of former Clinton speechwriter Steve Waldman and try some political jujitsu, by looking to highlight the paradox of debt-obsessed Republicans who consider big deficit-expanding tax cuts their top priority.

But listen closely to what Obama says about the long-term picture. Ever since a presidential commission on the debt issued a report in November that took on several sacred budget cows—including defense and entitlement programs—speculation abounded that Obama might endorse some of its ideas. Tonight would be an appropriate time to do so. (Although the White House is already ruling out one of the main possibilities—gradual reductions in Social Security benefits.)

2. Security and Diplomacy: Nearly five hundred Americans died in Afghanistan last year. But it’s been a long time since Obama discussed the war at any length during prime time. Will Obama offer anything more substantive than vague assurances of slow but steady progress? Probably not. More likely, he’ll deal with the painful subject as quickly as possible—preferring to emphasize the progress his administration has made in the fight against al Qaeda. He’s also sure to tout the happy story of setbacks to Iran’s nuclear program , as well as last month’s Senate ratification of a major nuclear arms treaty with Russia.

Above all, look for Obama to linger on the subject of China. As Joe has reported, Americans are deeply anxious about Beijing’s rapid ascent. Obama will be quick to boast about progress made during Hu Jintao’s recent state visit here. But he’ll also want to demonstrate that he hasn’t gone soft on points of US-Sino friction like trade and currency.

3. Mr. Grown Up: Obama’s speech in Tucson resonated because it harnessed an apparent national desire for more comity and civility in politics. While this is an ideal Obama has long promoted—it’s never been as politically potent as it is now. Look for him to return to the theme tonight.

Doing so will test Republican leaders who rode the fervor of their base to big midterm gains but are now nervous the Tea Party’s boiling rhetoric could alienate the independent voters who want the parties to work together. (When Republican Rep. Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” during Obama’s September 2009 address to Congress on heath care, he may have been channeling anti-Obama anger in a way that usefully riled his party’s base. But the climate has changed since then, and any incivility on the part of Republicans in the chamber will likely play to Obama’s advantage.)

It’s easier to be civil when you’re setting the agenda from the White House than it is when you’re leading the rancorous opposition on Capitol Hill. The more Obama raises the standard, the less room John Boehner and Mitch McConnell have to operate.

Taken together, you have the outlines of a presidential campaign pitch. And if Obama hits upon some themes that wind up carrying him to re-election next year, maybe tonight’s speech will be remembered as a historic one after all.