Tomorrow night Barack Obama will address both Houses of Congress in his first State of the Union Address.
It is not an auspicious moment. After one year in office, Obama’s poll numbers are the lowest of any President since Gerald Ford and he suffered a serious setback last week when the Democrats lost the Senatorial election in Massachusetts to Republican Scott Brown.
As David Plouffe told supporters yesterday, the President has hit some “serious bumps in the road…in the march toward change”.
That’s why Obama’s speech tomorrow has to be good enough to allow him to seize the agenda. Great speeches can do this. Think of all the times Tony Blair was counted out before he delivered a barnstorming speech to Labour conference and seized the initiative again. Even on a bad day, Obama is better than Blair.
So tomorrow night will be about vision and delivery.
He can point to some successes. His fiscal stimulus stabilised the economy. He has ended the era of torture. He has built a new relationship with the rest of the world. He put Sonia Sotomayor on the Supreme Court and although Copenhagen failed, he has changed the way the US Government thinks about climate change. He has also rightly decided that Afghanistan is a fight worth having.
But there are items he cannot ignore. He was elected on the promise of health care reform and this he must do. After twelve months of negotiations, he cannot back down now. He must reach out to Republicans when it comes to health care costs and look for a compromise with them on the issue. Any Bill that insures more people is better than no Bill at all.
He must talk about reducing the Budget deficit but send the bankers a clear warning at the same time. If they stand in the way of his banking reforms, they should be prepared to face the consequences. Defeating Wall Street for the sake of Main Street it is a battle worth having.
Finally, he should use the bully-pulpit the occasion affords him to reach out to Americans about the importance of climate change. It is a great chance to lead and to educate. He needs to display the same courage and bipartisanship on this issue that he showed in the campaign.
All of these issues are potentially fatal for him. The United States is more conservative than we often imagine. But he is absolutely right to press ahead. What he says tomorrow will tell us whether he is the transformational president we expect him to be.
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