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Obama's first State of the Union: What he will say vs. what he should say

January 27, 2010 |  3:12 am

Democrat president Barack Obama addresses a Joint Session of Congress 9-09

So tonight Barack Obama gives his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress before millions at home muttering back at their TV's and a predictably partisan audience of House and Senate members following or ignoring the signals of the woman up front, this time likely wearing power red, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.

We're predicting the administration's dresser goes with a blue tie tonight for VP Joe Biden, leaving the bolder red to his boss.

(UPDATE: Wednesday: We were right on the ties, wrong on the dress. Pelosi and Michelle Obama. both went with purple which, as loyal Ticket reader Judy points out, is what happens when you mix blue and red.)

Pelosi will be sitting behind the president's left shoulder and, according to her past practice, will be jumping up and sitting down like a set of pistons at 5,000 RPM's applauding enthusiastically, with Biden following suit but more slowly because he's seen so many of these shows since 1972 when Obama was only 11.

State of the Union speeches are democratic rituals and grand political theater that end up meaning very little. A Gallup study shows the 50 minutes or so of presidential palaver (yes, we'll be.... it here and will have the full transcript as always, plus the ensuing Republican response by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell) rarely have any detectable or lasting effect on public opinion.

Only Bill Clinton among modern chief executives enjoyed a poll bounce of a modest 3% average and short duration, despite all the contemporary attention focused on the remarks and the frequent interruptions for (Applause).

The pageant in the historic chamber gives any president a primetime opportunity to lay out his -- not yet her -- wishlist of legislative and programmatic priorities.

In order to call attention to certain policies targeted at certain sectors, Obama's communications strategists have been leaking select pieces since the weekend -- a spending freeze here (a John McCain idea which Obama didn't like during the campaign) but not over there, there, there, there and there. Or there. More education spending, possibly up to $4 billion, which seemed like a whole lot of money until about a year ago. Nothing yet on the Afghan war, just domestic stuff.

This afternoon the White House will release carefully-chosen excerpts designed to both assuage and use the broadcast feeding frenzy in advance -- and, not coincidentally, help set up the audience to get the desired impressions.

The speech Obama gives tonight, with his habitual head tilted back as if reading the Teleprompter through bifocals, will bear little resemblance to the one his writers began drafting back in November. The reason: Massachusetts, a special U.S. Senate election last week that proved to be a comeback gamechanger way beyond anything that Indianapolis pulled off against the Jets Sunday.

Massachusetts Republican Senator-elect Scott Brown celebrates his upset victory in the Democratic state 1-19-10

Obama's goal tonight will be to change the political discussion subject, to get away from what Brown can do to other Democrats running in November's midterms and to appear to embrace the agenda that polls and Democrat Martha Coakley's stunning loss have told everyone who doesn't live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It's the economy, stupid. And the jobs, you dunce. Also, the deficit.

All summer with the exception of a war speech to veterans, Obama talked and town-halled healthcare, healthcare, healthcare.

Much of the fall, in between the Copenhagen commutes, bowing his way across Asia and ordering a second Afghan troop surge, the president talked of little other than, of course, healthcare.

So much so, that polls show more than half the country believes he paid insufficient attention to the economy and the federal deficit that has grown more than a trillion dollars on his watch.

The result is that the hopey-changey-fix-the-tone-of-politics guy who one year ago had an approval rating of 70-something and the motto si se puede (yes, we can) turned out to be the most politically polarizing freshman president in history. Now, it's more like, Sal si puede (Get out if you can!).

After leaving much of 2009's economic stimulation promotion to Biden, Obama started getting the jobs message after voters in New Jersey and Virginia blew his party's gubernatorial candidates out of the water in November, despite more than a half-dozen campaign rallies there by the Good Talker himself.

This morning, even Obama's leftish base is unhappy. And no one in Washington knows what the future is of the president's beloved healthcare legislation -- if, indeed, there is any future. And this just 15 months after voters handed Democrats overwhelming majorities in both houses, as well as the big white house.

So the president will talk tonight economy, economy, economy. He's not running for anything this fall, but the entire House is and a third of the Senate, and prognosticators are falling over themselves this week adjusting upward the number of endangered Democratic seats. Not to mention three dozen governor's races.

A shift of only 40 House seats would force Pelosi to turn the gavel over to John Boehner. Eew, that's no San Francisco treat!

On everyone's mind is the historic congressional turnaround of 1994, Democrat Clinton's....


... first midterm elections, when voters rewarded his surprisingly liberal agenda by turning both houses over to Republicans for 12 years. That's a traumatic event etched into the memory of another product of the Chicago machine, Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, then a Clinton aide.

Clinton responded to that setback slap by openly announcing that the era of big government was over and promptly steered himself back to the middle and a resounding re-election two years later.

Obviously, Obama's first midterms are yet to happen. And it's a long time until November. One story making the rounds of Capitol Hill this week is that during a meeting with congressional Democrats last week, the president addressed their verbal hand-wringing by modestly observing that the big difference between 1994 and 2010 is that Democrats now have him in the Oval Office.

What many will be watching for tonight is how Obama addresses the Massachusetts mayhem, if at all. Initially, aides said the stunning defeat wouldn't deter the administration from pursuing its ambitious agenda aggressively.

Over his public life the 48-year-old Chicago politician has typically found it difficult to openly apologize or admit mistakes, which the surprisingly discerning American electorate sometimes requires, relishes and then usually appreciates.

Remember, for example, Obama's Philadelphia race speech during the primaries, when he could simply not denounce the racial attitudes of his white grandmother nor his controversial black Chicago minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright? And about three weeks later came Obama's complete disavowal of that very same minister? Obviously, that was all Wright's fault for crossing some invisible line in those few days, not Obama's mis-reading of his preacher over 20 years of sermons.

How the 44th president speaks to liberal Massachusetts' decisive disavowal of the liberal Democratic candidate may well ultimately play a more important role in shaping national public opinion in the months leading to November than any of the numerous items on Obama's alleged legislative To-Do list that he'll tick off during tonight's State of the Union address.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photos: Associated Press; Reuters (Scott Brown celebrates Senate win); Associated Press (Obama addresses a joint session on healthcare, September 2009).