There will be more prose, less poetry, though President Obama will certainly highlight the themes of his Inaugural Address and his earlier poetic speeches. He will be specific about policy: on immigration, gun violence, climate change, military expenditures and reforms, and the need for a balanced approach to immediate and long-term economic challenges. He will hang tough on the sequestration, calling the Republicans’ bluff, and he will warn of the dangers the U.S. faces abroad, while he defends his foreign policy, including his major accomplishment of ending two disastrous wars (though he won’t call them that). The speech is going to be about jobs and the middle class. This is all expected by the chattering class, and I think Obama will meet expectations. But I also think that there will be more interesting things going on. The President will move forcefully ahead on his major project, moving the center left on issues foreign and domestic. And there are significant signs he is succeeding, see this report from a deep red state.
Look for an opening to Republican moderates. I suspect Obama will not only stake out his positions, but also point to the way that those holding other positions may work with him on contentious issues. This will be most apparent in immigration reform. He will also likely address Republicans concerns about long-term cuts in government spending.
He will highlight the need for a leaner, but as mean, military budget, as he denounces the dangers of the thoughtless cuts in military spending via the sequester. Real cuts in military spending will please his base, including me, but also some more libertarian Republicans, Rand Paul, though not John McCain.
Less pleasing for progressives would be what Obama very well may say about so-called “entitlements.” I am not sure he will do this now, but if not now, when?
He could make clear his priority – control medical and Medicare expenses, reminding us that this is a task of Obamacare, but he also may make gestures suggesting more Republican friendly solutions concerning intelligent cutting of expenditures: on indexing and eligibility issues for Medicare and perhaps also Social Security. He is unlikely to be specific. He will emphasize that these programs are essential. Yet, he could strategically reveal an openness to Republican ideas, as he emphasizes the need for bi-partisan support of infrastructure, education, research and development, meeting the economic and environmental challenges of the day. This would be an invitation to moderate Republicans to break away from the “party of no.”
Obama’s recent legislative victories included Republican votes on the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling. I believe he will talk about the economy in such a way that he strengthens his capacity to draw upon this new governing coalition. He will do it in the name of the middle class and those aspiring to be in the middle class. This is the formulation of Obama for ordinary folk, the popular classes, the great bulk of the demos, the people. In this speech and in others, they are the subjects of change, echoing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: government of the middle class and those aspiring to be in the middle class, by the middle class and those aspiring to be in the middle class, for the middle class and those aspiring to be in the middle class. (More on this on another day.)
Obama will declare the state of the Union as fundamentally sound and improving. He will underscore the contingencies of the improvement. He will speak to the middle class and those aspiring to be in the middle class, but also to the members of Congress. Speaking to the Congress, he will draw upon the themes of his re-election campaign and his recent speeches on gun violence and immigration. With public support, he will call on Congress to act, and he will suggest the path. He will speak in the name of those who voted for him, but will reach out to the representatives of those who didn’t to find common cause on key crucial issues. He will voice his fundamental commitments and suggest compromise. It will be interesting to see how he will balance these.
I think Obama’s constancy is the most remarkable aspect of his presidency. Tactics have changed, as he has worked with a Democratic majority in Congress, with a Republican dominated Congress, and against a Republican dominated Congress. But his goals have not changed, most clearly summarized, in my judgment, in two key speeches. The one that made him a national figure: his keynote address to the Democratic Convention in 2004 (and the many speeches that followed repeated its inclusive themes) and his recent Inaugural Address, which most clearly and compactly articulates his progressive aspirations. He is a centrist who wants to include into public debate the experiences and aspirations of the American people in its diversity, including the diversity of opinion: progressive, conservative and moderate. But he has his specific commitments, and he wants those commitments, most sharply revealed in the Inaugural Address, to be at the center of the debate. Expect a State of the Union that links these two speeches, pointing to specific actions, and, therefore, pushing forward the Obama transformation.