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

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).

Comments () | Archives (28)

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Oh please! This speech from Obama means nothing for american people. When has he ever kept his word or even listened to anyone other than himself. He does not lead and govern, he travels around, read speeches and make promises he never keep.


It's a difficult time. We've got two wars going that we can't afford to pay for.
Our economy is on the fritz, to be plain, due to many years of unregulated excess.

What we've got to do, and do urgently, is:

1. JOBS. We're going to stop exporting jobs, stop encouraging and rewarding companies for outsourcing jobs to destroy our good manufacturing jobs here. We're going to go back to the ideas of Tom Jefferson, and levy a protective tariff on manufactured goods that are imported using slave or misery labor.

Our unemployed are only half the problem; without a stepping stone to a future, our people's talents lie fallow, under-utilized and feeling despised and worthless.

We're going to rebuild our manufacturing base in this country, and restore good jobs, jobs with a future, while dismantling destructive enterprises that feed off foreign misery and import that misery to our unemployed and hopelessly under-employed.

2. ENERGY. We'll for the first time in this administration forbid new coal mines, and resume enforcement of the Clean Water Act that outlawed so-called mountaintop removal and streambed filling with the dirt and toxic waste. The antics of coal companies are leaving a lasting legacy of ugly land and future payments for cleanup that they can't meet.

So far, we've not done a thing for solar power in my Administration; even the solar tax credit came from my predecessor.

The Rooftops of America are already developed; the tragedy is that instead of covering these roofs with solar panels, we covered them with inert rooftops. Our plan now is to have every roof be solar, and build up a great solar industry that will generate such plentiful power that we can stop charging for it, and dismantle our last few nuke power plants.

We'll use the power for plug-in cars. We'll force auto makers to produce and support a great battery industry.

We'll break up Standard Oil all over again; Chevron, Exxon and the three other major oil companies must be broken into hundreds of new firms, and we need an oil extraction tax that dwarfs current taxes. We need to penalize self-destructive things like oil imports and cheap wal-crap.

3. EDUCATION. We're going to require a return to teaching the "3 Rs". Exotic ideas about teaching kids have failed; in truth, kids learn more from the internet, their peers and movies than they do in our obsolete school environment.

We are going to bring a new dignity to non-intellectual labor: kids are going to be able to learn how to do jobs that really count, build things, make things, and use their hands, as a well-paid and highly-regarded alternative to formal college learning.

4. TAXES. No longer can we tolerate the runaway tax cheats, who have bribed their way to tax exemption. No longer can we afford the disparity in income, where the well-to-do can't figure out where to spend their money, and the honest workers can't figure out where their next dime is coming from. We're going to tax so-called "non-national" or "multi-national" corporations, excessive bonuses, banks, tax cheats, the very wealthy, and offshore scams...

and so on.

See, it's really easy to tell the truth...

What should Obama say? that's easy he should say I resign

there are only two(2) words i want to hEAR FROM O'bama; "I QUIT". He has spent the last year putting this country so far in debt, thst it will be 3 or four generations before we are able to dig out of the mess we are in. And another thing, what kind of "Commander in Chief would even think of asking his troops to pay for there own health care; volunter force not withstanding? As for the Clinton agenda, I would say that 8 years is enough. What Mass, is saying is that the time for change is Now! Sound familiar OBAMA?

Will Leno be on before him?

So, he's making another campaign speech. Yet again...... So what. Doesn't matter what he "says" now - a year into his term. I'm tired of "hearing" what is is "going to do." Clearly, he is going to do what he has been doing - spending, spending, spending - making sure that America is economically ruined with no chance of recovery.

This man is a complete joke an embarrassment to our country and I'm positive his insides are made of wood. He's a good friend to big pharmacy though....that much is obvious. He even managed to slip in a piece of legislation in the health care bill making it harder for generic drug makers to help out the common man to bring down prices.
He lied about bringing the troops home and did the exact opposite. He lied about letting the public read legislation let alone the people voting on it. What really needs an overhaul is the government and banking system. Corrupt is corrupt is corrupt and the citizens pay the price. Just remember big buisness bribing people in the house or senate is illegal.....but all important voters have received over a million dollars in "gifts" from them.

So I take it Health Care is dead? If so, I believe Obama's chances for re-election are dead as well. He has failed on just about evey major election promise he made during his campaign, Health Care, The Wars, The Economy. Where does it end? I guess it ends with a Republican controlled House, Senate and White House...

Someone please check the source of this article...could it really be the LA Times?

How can you say it's Obama who's the polarizing force? Just look at what the right has done! Driven by racist hatred and the plutocracy's irrational fear of egalitarianism, the right has viciously tarred the president at every opportunity. Exaggerations, falsehoods, fear-mongering, stonewalling -- even breaking into a Senator's office in true Watergate style -- these people are not the loyal oppostion, they are revolutionaries who are at the barricades trying to overthrow the government.
With all that noise, who could hear the voices of reason?
The only real problem with Obama is that he's too principled to fight fire with fire.

Meaningless Posturing. Don't plan on tuning in.


This is a terrible article! All personal and no fact.Its very sad that LA Times cant do better than this. Andrew Malcolm is horrible!!!!!

I cannot watch the charade.

Caca, I just want to point out that the President has kept many promises: 91 of them, in fact.

Politifact is a nonpartisan organization that has been tracking Obama. He has kept 91 promises, outright broken 15, and has 275 in the works. That's a good track record, especially considering he has only been in office for a single year. Granted, some of those are kind of inconsequential, but many are quite substantial, such as withdrawal from Iraq or extending healthcare to more children.

work for the RNC much? Thanks for informing me about the importance of tie color, nice to know you, like the other, fine, incredible journalistic talents of the mainstream media, are so focused on the substance of what is important to ordinary Americans instead of focusing on the drama and political theater.

work for the RNC much? Thanks for informing me about the importance of tie color, nice to know you, like the other, fine, incredible journalistic talents of the mainstream media, are so focused on the substance of what is important to ordinary Americans instead of focusing on the drama and political theater.

It's being promoted that the pres. heard the american people and will push the jobs button. His agenda has stalled but Pelosi and Reid hasn't received the message yet. Apparently his own party is turning on him. Let's see if promises reverses the course of spending and not just freezing 17% of the bloated budget.

Yes, not too much is lost in the first year. He wanted to be a real leader of masses, but some how failed to be a mass leader. He was misguided by his staff and advisers for the wrong path as far as economy, foreign and domestic policies. He wanted to have a better relation with the Muslims but because of powerful Jewish lobbies and his main advisers, he was unable to make a positive move to that end. His image in the Muslim world and in Palestine suffered badly. He was unable to change the economy for the American middle class only to save the powerful banks and insurance companies and millionaires and billionaires. He was wrong in distributing billions for useless projects. He put too much attention on health care measures and wrongly wants to award billions to the large insurance companies rather than change the laws to force the insurance companies to lower their cost and profit and make the health cost lower for all. He was wrong in thinking that by giving powerful speeches he can continue fooling the public. American want action not sweet speeches.
To change the course; he should make major changes in his cabinet and staff. He should take immediate action in listening to the public who are really suffering rather than greedy millionaires who are crying fouls. He must change his and America's policy to be a gentle, fair, humane, just and peace loving rather than continuing wars and atrocities around the Globe allowing use of American arms and ammunition

We will be able to observe Obama’s sharpened and highly improved salesmanship. The White House tells us that any of his past shortcomings are the result of failing to explain effectively what he and the Dems were doing — and why.

So expect Obama to serve us at least a few crumbs heavely fortified with more spins than changes. I will enjoy and feast on his fat lies while getting drunk on his cool aid. It will be a hell of a night!

Agreed. This will be another appeal to our emotions. It will leave us inspired and with hope, but with little substance to warrant those feelings of optimism. That is what Obama is a master at doing.

Why do you start off, not just a sentence, but an entire article with the word 'So'? Your credibility as a serious journalist just went down in my opinion.

Caca makes some important points, but at the same time I still must disagree on a couple of issues. Breaking promises and lying does not (on its own) prevent one from being a good president. EVERY president has lied--even the good ones! Let's look back to the George W. Bush era... I think we all would agree that he lied a couple of times during his presidency. But did this FACT ever stop him from leading or governing? I mean it! Who can answer this question for me? I certainly saw him speak on the TV a bunch of times at a number of different media events. And now I see Obama on TV sometimes (or the internet). And it really doesn't matter what country he's visiting while he's being recorded or broadcasted. He's still right there--speaking and leading this country in a direction.

I heard an interview today with John Boehner. He claims the republicans are willing to work with democrats in a true bipartisan way. The interviewer asked "does this mean you will vote for legislation", his response "if the majority of it supports our position". In other words, the minority party wants majority control of legislation -- this is not compromise, but a party of no.

I wish Obama would step up and say: Of the $1.4 trillion deficit last year - my stimulus was $200 billion -- the rest was the fault of the last president. Oh, the Bank and AIG bailouts -- not my doing. They were completed BEFORE I took office. I did request more accountability than the republican president wanted. I wanted to protect tax payer money.

As for not getting much done -- I spent months reviewing the terrible mess I was left with in Afghanistan. I was given a broken economy that could have totally collapsed. I inherited $1 trillion in debt for two wars (why didn't Republicans insist we pay for that, instead of borrowing the money). I have a $1 trillion health plan (paid for) that will help our fellow citizens and start to address growing health costs that will cripple this country. My plan would be better, but democrats compromised on so many things to try to get republican support. Since the GOP will vote no anyway I think we will add back in all the liberal agenda items -- we will finally do the christian thing and take care of our fellow citizens.

I have heard Beck and Hannity and O-Reilly clamor for the America of their youth. So, today I am proposing we return to the income and corporate tax rates of the 60's. I am proposing we return to the banking and consumer protection regulations of the 60's. I am saying that the tax and regulations of the 50's and 60's are what enabled us to achieve the highest standard of living in the world (a position we lost after the Regan revolution).

I will close with the following joke I heard. "During the Regan years we had Bob Hope and Johnny Cash. Now with Obama president, we have no Hope and no Cash." Funny. Of course we lost both Hope and Cash in 2003 -- so what does that tell you?


sounds like every other politician.

I am so sick and tired of everyone complaining about President Obama that he never keeps his word or promises and all he cares about is himself. For 8 years with the Bush Administration, who got us into this mess, no one every complained, and all he did was get us into a war, which hasn't changed terrorism, Bin Ladden is still out there, ruined the economy, inflated gas prices, and made our country even more segregated (blue and red states). There is no President that could dig us out of what the Bush administration has created in just one year. I wish everyone would just stick together and have some faith in our leader.

Partisan rhetoric is damaging my country, and it is particularly damaging to the interests of my generation. It is damaging to life in general. I definitely agree that jobs are a top concern.

I would like a job that is stable, like the one my father has had for over 30 years. But you see, that is a thing of the past. I'm OK with that.

Now people in Dad's generation (the baby-boomers) care MOST about lowering health care costs so they can retire as soon possible without lowering their quality of life. I would love to see those things happen, especially for my elder family members. Believe me, I believe it is possible.

People are still coming to grips with the notion that they cannot live forever in the manner in which they did during years 1942-2008. I think that you've omitted this extremely important aspect from your description of the political "cause-effect" world you seem to be living in.

It seems like you'd just like to blame the Democrats. That's getting us absolutely nowhere. It's both sad and aggravating to see people misleading themselves.

The reason we are in this depression is because banks were unregulated as a result of prior work done by our government and the businesses it attempted to regulate. You cannot successfully dispute this work was done by Democrats and Republicans together and it was this work that is the cause of our worsening conditions.

Go ahead and blame Obama and critique his "personal" choice to focus on health care (still a major problem - thanks to the exceptionally parasitic businesses in that industry who are still totally out of control). But, I'll never identify with publicly bashing people, even when its for a good cause. Partisan rhetoric is ruining our chances at finding common ground. We don't have time for this kind of nonsense.

Our common ground is beneath our feet. So, let's make ourselves more PRODUCTIVE AND EFFICIENT by fostering economic growth with new technologies and innovative processes. We have new markets already proven, people are literally dieing for new products and services. So, we already have solutions to creating new jobs waiting in the wings. That's indisputable, but it doesn't mean you are aware that it is indisputable!

The real problem is this: Anything new is risky and not adapting to reality is insane. However, reality may not agree with you.

If a radical new solution to creating jobs does not fit into an incumbent firm's strategies it is less likely to be considered as a worthy entrepreneurial endeavor. The radical new solution is more likely to be seen as a potential threat. So, irrespective of what part of the one-dimensional Democrat versus Republican world you seek to live in - this is the real problem; how do you make money quickly with a radical new idea to sustain large numbers of living wage jobs? How do we convince incumbent firms in very mature industries that they need to change (or completely dissolve) in order to be more successful? It is counter intuitive, perhaps, but it's what needs to happen. It is happening, one way or another.

Answer these questions, for say GM or Chrystler, and then you'll be a real patriot, not just a self-perceived flag waver.

Articles like this infuriate me because they seek only to bash Obama and do not see the larger picture. We need a new picture that describes a vision for sustaining a very old system, that system is life on our planet.

Obama was right about one thing and one thing only, we do need change.

We must also RE-LEARN a very old way. That new way is embodied in the concepts of biomimicry.

Learn to readapt your knowledge, for God's sake, if you will. Biomimicry could mean the end of your one-dimensional world. I really hope so.

As a Christian, Obama knows that he has to help fulfill the "days of Lot" (Luke 17, cf. Gen. 19) with his repeal of you-know-what in order to hurry up the return of the Heavenly Commander-in-Chief who will make all things straight (pun intended)!


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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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