The State of the Union Address is usually among the most important and least memorable of presidential speeches. The speech itself, in an august setting, is an opportunity for a president to break through in a new way. TV and radio carry it live, and it’s hard for the average citizen to avoid seeing at least a piece of it. It’s a real chance for a White House to tell the American people “This is where we stand, this is why we are here, this is what we believe in.”
But most State of the Unions don’t measure up. They get beaten down by the staffing process and flattened by the laundry-list aspects: “We’ll do this and this and this.” There’s always too much going on in the speech, and in the end it’s usually, in Churchill’s phrase, a pudding without a theme.
And they run long. One reason is that you want to make a speech unavoidable. The longer it is, the greater the chance people will see some part of it. Another is that in the 1960s network anchors started noting how many times the president was “interrupted by applause.” This made everyone in every White House since want to get their guy more applause than the previous guy. Congressmen pop up and down like manic gophers in an attempt to show support. A president is left standing up there for an hour and 20 minutes with the blood starting to pool in his calves and a look on his face that says, “I really want to look like I’m interested in what I’m saying, but we’re 22 minutes in and I’m just thinking about dinner.” They eat lightly before the speech. They are hungry after.
This year, members of Congress may sit together, not divided by party. After the trauma of Tucson that would be all to the good, a physical expression of a national longing that will never go away, that we be one country. Watch for the White House to craft semi-ringing and wholly anodyne statements that will allow members of both parties to leap to their feet together, such as “Now and always, America stands for freedom.” This will leave people at home thinking “Boy, they like this guy more than I thought.”
A prediction: President Obama’s speech will be unusually good. Why? Because he’s showing signs of understanding that if you say something simply, clearly and sparingly, it can stick. As a rule, when Mr. Obama speaks, he literally says too many words, and they’re not especially interesting words. They’re dull and bureaucratic or windy and vague, too round and soft to pierce and enter your brain.
The speech takes place at the midpoint of his administration and at the beginning of what may turn out to be a Clintonesque comeback. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll notes this week that his approval rating is at 53%, up eight points since December. That’s quite a jump and can be explained by changes in his recent governing style and decisions: agreeing to the Bush tax cuts, losing a chief of staff who was a tough little gut-crunching pol and gaining one who seems more at home in the world of . . . well, the world. There was the moving speech in Tucson after the shootings, an unembarrassing and possibly helpful summit with President Hu Jintao of China, and an elegant and grown-up state dinner in which everyone seemed to know what they were doing with the exception of Barbra Streisand, who on being asked why she was there said she once worked in a Chinese restaurant. But she added color.
A big thing the president has going for him now, and part of the reason for his improved fortunes, is that he was chastened in 2010. Americans like chastened presidents, especially ones who have acted with extreme ambition and lack of humility. Americans know their presidents have extraordinary power, and so they enjoy reminding them who’s boss. In the 2010 election they did just that. But after humbling him, they will, in their fairness, give him a second look at some point. Voters also did for the president what he could not do for himself: They surgically removed Nancy Pelosi from his hip by taking away her majority and her speakership. He can now stand alone.
So the president is in a good position, on the way up after two years on the way down. A great question is: Does he know he’s on the way up because his style and decisions have become more centrist? Do the people around him know it? If they know why, they can continue it, and if they don’t, they won’t.
Here are three things he can do in the speech that would be surprising, shrewd, centrist and good policy. The first may seem small but is not. Normal people are not afraid of a lowering of discourse in political speech. They don’t like it, but it’s not keeping them up nights. Normal people are afraid of nuts with guns. That keeps them up nights. They know our society has grown more broken, families more sundered, our culture more degraded, and they fear it is producing more lost and disturbed young people. They fear those young people walking into a school or a mall with a semiautomatic pistol with an extended clip.
What civilian needs a pistol with a magazine that loads 33 bullets and allows you to kill that many people without even stopping to reload? No one but people with bad intent. Those clips were banned once; the president should call for reimposing the ban. The Republican Party will not go to the wall to defend extended clips. The problem is the Democratic Party, which overreached after the assassinations of the 1960s, talked about banning all handguns, and suffered a lasting political setback. Now Democrats are so spooked that they won’t even move forward on small and obvious things like this. The president should seize the moment and come out strong for a ban.
Second, his words on health care should not be defiant, high-handed or intransigent. The House this week voted to repeal ObamaCare. If the bill gets to his desk, he will veto it. But shrewdness here would be in conciliation. He should sincerely—underline sincerely—offer to discuss changing those parts of the law Republicans find most objectionable.
Third, he should argue for extension of the debt limit by offering a grand bargain: In return, he will work hand in hand with Republicans to cut or limit spending that can reasonably and quickly be cut or limited. This too would win support, and respect, from centrists and others.
The great thing for the president is that expectations are low. The political class sees him making a comeback; they’re eager to see and laud the speech. But again, no one expects much from a State of the Union, and the president’s reputation as a giver of speeches is wildly inflated. What he says is not usually interesting. He is interesting, but what he says is usually not. In this he is like Bill Clinton.
He is a president with everything to gain from shrewd decisions, moderate thinking, and respect for the center. He seems to have learned that wanting popularity and public approval is not, actually, below him. In fact, it’s part of his job.