Only one president will stand before the joint session of Congress in the House chamber tonight, and his teleprompters will all carry the same text. But in a real sense the orator in chief will be giving two speeches rather than one.
That's because elements of his audience, both in the chamber and beyond, are listening to hear two different and even contradictory messages. Each element is waiting with some anxiety and even anger, and neither will be easily mollified if the president disappoints.
Consider these two distinct sets of ears and expectations. The first and probably larger group consists of independent voters who took Candidate Obama seriously in 2008 when he said he wanted to change the way Washington works. He convinced these voters, who partly convinced themselves, that he would be immersed in the mainstream. His administration would be bipartisan, cooperative and oriented toward the pragmatic.
This was meant to contrast with the politics of the previous administration, which had thrived in its heyday by stressing divisive issues such as war, abortion and gay marriage.
Having signed on for change, polls show, such voters are now unhappy to find the two parties more estranged and at cross purposes than at any time since World War II (with the possible exception of the year the Republican House impeached President Bill Clinton).
Many of these voters may find fault with the minority Republicans, too. Still, their objection to the Obama presidency to date has to do with method and process. These independents are disillusioned that the new president would allow the Democratic leaders in Congress to write bills with little or no Republican input. They are further dispirited by the sight of individual Democrats (especially in the Senate) cutting separate deals to deliver their votes for the president's program — on health care and elsewhere.
Let's face it. People know more about what Sen. Ben Nelson got into the health care bill for Nebraska than they know about the guts of the bill itself and its potential benefits for the country as a whole.
One can readily imagine drafting a speech that would appeal to this group. It would mention Republican presidents with respect and even admiration. It would resonate with national themes that oblige those in the chamber to rise and applaud, on either side of the aisle. It would offer the president's hand in cooperation for the sake of the common good.
Specifically, President Obama might reach out to the coalition of private interests that once backed the comprehensive health legislation: health insurers and care providers, hospitals and medical professionals, champions of business and seniors. Now is the time to enlist these inside players to help in recruiting Republicans. And yes, Republicans will be needed, at least in the Senate, if the legislation is to survive the loss of the Democrats' 60th vote in last week's Massachusetts special election.
Such a gesture will not move many committed conservatives. But that is not the goal. The idea is to bring back some of those independents who backed the Obama bid in 2008 and whose defection is costing the president and his party so dearly in the polls and at the polls (see Massachusetts above, and the gubernatorial contests last November in New Jersey and Virginia).
Easy as it is to imagine such a rhetorical thrust, the president cannot afford to give this speech and leave it at that. He must remember the importance of that other audience that is waiting to hear something completely different.
For if independents feel let down by Obama's partisan tilt there are millions of liberals feeling betrayed by his apparent capitulation to centrism. For these listeners, many of them seething with resentment, there must be a countermessage of confrontation.
Here again, it is not hard to sketch the outlines of such a message. It could be built around a barn-burning and roof-raising bid to the populists of the left who want Wall Street in the pillory and higher taxes on the rich. The president has been handed a ready-made issue in this regard by the investment banks' insistence on restoring the hyperbolic bonus culture and returning to risk-taking to restore profitability. The president can talk about these excesses, talk about clawing back the bailout billions and demand greater lending to small business and the little guy.
The president has already acknowledged that the populist energy he rode into office has shifted to those who would ride him out of office tomorrow if they could. Tonight he has a chance to speak to that energy and throw the switch back the other way. He cannot afford to lose that chance, as he might not get another as good before November.
By some measures, President Obama has had a higher success score in Congress than any president since World War II. But any metric of success seems meaningless when the biggest of the big-ticket items remain mired in the process: the overhauling of health care and health insurance, the tightening of regulation on the financial industry, and the climate change and energy bill often summarized by one feature, the "cap and trade" method of incentivizing the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Much might be forgiven if the recession and unemployment had been brought to heel. Bottom line, the average American is either worried about losing a job or knows someone who is. When that kind of fear is abroad in the land, many other kinds of ills and unease radiate from it.
After one year in office, President Obama and his congressional majorities stand accused of failing their own most active partisans and also of failing those who had hoped for an end to partisanship. It has been possible to disappoint both camps at once, and now the president must aspire to rapprochement with both at once. If only he could give two speeches at once.