Shadow Government

State of the Union: Obama’s chance to define the landscape of the U.S. economy and Afghanistan

The president delivering the State of the Union address in person is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before Woodrow Wilson restored the practice, even populists like Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt fulfilled this Constitutional requirement by sending an address to be read to the Congress, which is curious, since the State of the Union is the president’s most ...

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

The president delivering the State of the Union address in person is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before Woodrow Wilson restored the practice, even populists like Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt fulfilled this Constitutional requirement by sending an address to be read to the Congress, which is curious, since the State of the Union is the president’s most important speech, both substantively and symbolically. It gives him the opportunity to set a governing agenda, a chance to grab the commanding heights at the beginning of a legislative year. With all of the Congress, president’s cabinet, justices of the Supreme Court, and Joint Chiefs of Staff arrayed, it theatrically reinforces that our executive is the primus inter pares of our political system. 

This year’s State of the Union message will be especially important for President Obama, since a new Congress has just taken office after an election widely considered a referendum on the first half of the president’s term in office, and the opposition has an activist agenda that, if adroitly implemented, would effectively sideline the president for the coming two years.

The main theme of the president’s address should be economic: outlining job creation and debt reduction strategies. He needs to steal these issues from the Republicans who carried the election. While it is factually incorrect to characterize the economic crisis that began in 2008 as "the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression," that mantra is a political winner for the president. It buys him more latitude if he can frame the issue as staving off disaster, and he needs to effectively challenge the Republican narrative that his policies have deepened the recession. Other successes will not supersede a failure in reducing unemployment. The president needs to carry the argument that he is dedicated to job creation, a perception that has been undercut by his extended attention to other issues like health care reform, and on which the 2012 presidential election will likely hinge.

Debt reduction will be forced on the president by the 112th Congress, and as such, the president ought to get out in front of it. A political consensus has emerged that for reasons of both economy and national security, we must put ourselves on a path back to national solvency. President Obama will have to repudiate his own budget, which has already doubled and would triple our national debt by 2020. President Clinton brilliantly repositioned himself after the 1994 midterm election defeat by memorably declaring the era of big government over. President Obama would be smart to aim for phrasing and proposals at that level of drama to buy himself the chance to affect how the reductions are made and pocket at least some of the credit. The obvious argument to make would be that an enormous wave of projected government spending was necessitated to restore confidence, but as the result of his policies, we can now begin to cut back. But he will actually have to cut back, or Republicans will own this issue.

So far, the only spending reductions telegraphed by the administration are to defense. This is a terrible place for this president to be. Secretary Gates dolefully announced the White House’s bait and switch that requires the military to give to the White House savings that Gates had promised would be reinvested within DOD. The budgets of the State Department and USAID have increased 155 percent since 2003, and while those increases are justifiable, the administration has not justified them well, as proposals for radical reductions (eliminating $1.3 billion of USAID’s $1.6 billion operating budget) are already being circulated. Unless the president makes a compelling case for "smart power," he will have a very difficult time getting spending for non-defense agencies through Congress. The State Department’s attempts in the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review to argue that it is more cost effective than Defense are more likely to offend than persuade. The president explaining that trade creates jobs both here and abroad, serving both his economic and foreign policy agenda, would be a good place to start, including pressing his party in Congress to approve already negotiated trade pacts.

As commander in chief, the president has a responsibility to make updates on the wars a central component to his State of the Union address. This will be tricky, given the unsatisfactory outcome in Iraq and the unpopularity of his successful but expensive Afghanistan strategy. All U.S. troops are required to be out of Iraq by the end of this year, and while the president championed that outcome, trumpeting that fact will seem to belittle the sacrifices our military made and reinforce how much U.S. influence the administration’s aggressive inattention to Iraq has squandered. It will also remind voters that the president is carrying out in Afghanistan the very approach he insisted did not work in Iraq. 

The president has not been successful in establishing a unified theory of the wars. He needs to conflate the narrative, taking greater pride in all we made possible in Iraq, excusing difficulties as the growing pains of democracy, and strongly defending his decisions to surge the war in Afghanistan. His July 2011 deadline is an inconvenient albatross he hung around his own neck; the best he can probably do with this contradiction in his policy is emphasize Afghan willingness to take over responsibilities beginning in July and pretending that validated his approach. It would be terrifically graceful if he were to thank NATO allies and other nations contributing forces for committing to remain in the fight with us until 2014.

Stylistically, the president should adopt the tone of generosity and concerned moderation that served him so well in his Tucson speech (a six point bounce in the polls, approval rising and disapproval diminishing, which he had not seen before). This administration very often gets it wrong, self-pityingly bemoaning the difficulty of governing, as though our fractious age were somehow uniquely difficult, or castigating his adversaries (terming the new Republic leadership as hostage takers, for example). Also, he ought really to restrain himself while speaking from the habit of finger wagging, too, as it conjures up a caricature of pedantic professorialism to which he is vulnerable. There will be a premium on being presidential, that is to say, representing the best our nation can be.

Leading the country is difficult work, but it’s a job he volunteered for, and if President Obama hopes to get a second term at it, he will need to revivify his current one. The State of the Union address presents the last real opportunity before the opposition in Congress redefines the political landscape. If he misses this chance, he will have to rely on their mistakes rather than his successes to propel his agenda.

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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