The Root: Why Obama's Speech Needs To Play It Safe

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President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House during an event unveiling efforts to strengthen the government's support for military families. Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday night. i i

hide captionPresident Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House during an event unveiling efforts to strengthen the government's support for military families. Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday night.

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House during an event unveiling efforts to strengthen the government's support for military families. Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday night.

President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House during an event unveiling efforts to strengthen the government's support for military families. Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday night.

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.

After his inaugural address; his first State of the Union; his speeches in Philadelphia, Denver, Springfield and Oslo; and the 2004 Democratic convention speech, during which he proclaimed "there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America," everybody knows that President Barack Obama can give a great speech.

If any doubters remained, they were gone after the president's rousing tribute to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the victims of the Tucson massacre. If he's re-elected in two years, we'll look back on Tucson as the moment Obama stopped governing the country and started leading it.

People like the president. But there's still a question about whether the broadest part of the electorate has confidence that he's getting the job done. Speeches won't help him with that anymore.

After the "shellacking" Democrats took in the 2010 midterms, a consensus was forming that Obama needed to hit a home run with his State of the Union to bolster his chances for 2012. But with polls showing Obama's favorability at 53 percent, his fortunes are already rising. Now all he really needs is a base hit to keep his streak going — a State of the Union that's solid but unspectacular; that covers the subject but keeps it brief; that's sober but optimistic; that doesn't try to change people's lives, and merely seeks to reassure them that they're in capable hands.

At Tuesday's State of the Union, Obama needs another good performance — but not a great one.

This State of the Union will succeed if he does five things to convince voters that he is focused on what matters most to them:

Keep It Short

The president will be competing for eyeballs with college basketball and reruns of Two and a Half Men. With round-the-clock political coverage going on three cable networks and kids to get to school in the morning, folks don't have all night to hear what Obama has to say. If he can't cover everything in a half hour, he's saying too much.

Don't Make a List

Obama has racked up a lot of wins so far: The stimulus, Race to the Top, Lilly Ledbetter, Wall Street reform and New START all prove that he knows how to push laws through Congress. But if anything's been shown in the last two years, it's that voters aren't impressed by lists of legislative victories. Obama should resist the urge to recap all the laws he's passed.

Avoid Health Care

After telling a joint session of Congress in 2009 that he was "determined to be the last" American president to deal with health care reform, Obama didn't get the boost he was seeking. The bill passed, but his speech only made the health care issue bigger, not better for him.

Last week the House of Representatives voted to repeal "ObamaCare," but Republicans didn't get the bounce they were hoping for, either. The lesson: When it comes to health care talk, less is more.

Own the Debt Commission

There's going to be a lot of focus on the politics of debt and taxes for the rest of Obama's term, and whoever sets the tone and tenor of the debate is going to have the upper hand. This speech is Obama's chance to remind Americans that the bipartisan deficit commission, which presented its report in December, was convened at his insistence in the face of Republican opposition in Congress.

Invest Wisely

Early buzz says that Obama will be calling for "investment" in America's future — a chord he repeatedly struck in his remarks six weeks ago at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was a good speech, meant to tie in with Obama's recent appointment of General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt to his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness and emphasizing that, "We don't want to be a nation that simply buys and consumes products from other countries. We want to create and sell products all over the world that are stamped with three simple words: 'Made In America.'"

But unless the president knows exactly how he plans to move ahead with high-speed rail or getting the nation's schoolkids to buckle down in science and math, he should careful, because it's a safe bet his opponents will say investment is "big-government" spending by another name.

Obama will ultimately be judged by how he performs in the next two years, not by his kick-off speech, so Tuesday is as good a time as any to let his inner policy wonk take the night off.

When he takes the initiative, Obama often loses. He usually wins when he finds a way to manage expectations. His most popular achievements so far — last month's tax deal with Republicans and the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell — turned out to be hits partly because no one expected them. For the president to come out ahead, he'd be wise to apply a different theme from the business world and use the State of the Union to under-promise.

He's still got two years to over-deliver.

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