Before President Obama uttered a word of his second State of the Union Speech last January, he heard the loud chorus of criticism, attacks, denunciations, and just plain boos from the usual suspects. That is GOP officials, Tea Party leaders and followers, and the pack of professional Obama loathers, the right wing bloggers, talk show hosts and websites. This year won't be any different. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels will give the official GOP response. He'll hammer Obama on the usual GOP hit points that Obama and the Democrats, are guilty of alleged rampant government spending and waste, imposing crushing taxes and regulations that supposedly hamper business, and for a rudderless, dead-end policy on jobs and the economy. There's even a plan this time for Herman Cain, that's right the virtually forgotten and disgraced Herman Cain, to give the Tea Party rebuttal to the president's address.
Though Obama wisely hasn't dropped a hint of what he'll say in his Third State of the Union Address, it doesn't much matter. The reasons for the pre and post speech attacks are the same. The State of the Union speech is in effect a sort of de facto report card on the past accomplishments, and the present and future planned initiatives of a presidential administration and the president's vision for the country.
The stakes, though, are much higher this year than last. It's an election year, and Obama's popularity approval ratings have wildly see sawed back and forth between a plus and a minus. And with jobs and the economy being the GOP's stock hit issue on Obama and with a majority of Americans preoccupied with the economy, his speech is both an economic and political campaign referendum on what and how Obama will deal with both issues in 2012 and if reelected for the next four years. But it's the reelection issue that looms largest in the hawk like watch from Obama's GOP opponents on his State of the Union speech.
The State of the Union Address is every president's time to shine. GOP and Democratic presidents have always been keenly aware that their Democratic and Republican opponents know that State of the Union Addresses boost the stature, prestige, and power of the presidency, and usually bumps up the president's approval rating by a point or two. They also know that the opposition's response to the speech is feeble, pale, and little watched or counted by Americans. One can only imagine how dismal the ratings will be on Cain's "rebuttal" to Obama.
The history of the State of the Union speech underscores the power to shape policy and bolster the president's image. President James Monroe announced the Monroe Doctrine in 1823. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln flatly called for the end of slavery in the rebellious states. This was the prelude to the Emancipation Proclamation he issued a year later. Woodrow Wilson warned of the dangers of impending war in 1913. Franklin Roosevelt outlined the famed Four Freedoms in 1941. Lyndon Johnson unveiled the outlines of his Great Society program to fight poverty in 1965. Bill Clinton unveiled his health care reform plan in 1993. George Bush in his State of the Union speeches in 2002 and 2003 prepped the nation for the Iraq invasion. Presidents quickly latched onto the media to give their State of the Union speech more exposure and political wallop. Calvin Coolidge gave the first radio broadcast in 1923. Truman gave the first televised broadcast in 1947.
Obama almost certainly will survey his administration's foreign policy, war on terrorism, immigration reform, and health care accomplishments. But it's the thorny problem of jobs and the economy that's still the prime issue. No matter what Obama says about it, whether he restates his repeated calls for more investment in infrastructure projects, an end to Bush's tax cuts for the rich and more spending on education, technology and green energy projects. Or, he goes big as some clamor for him to do, and propose sweeping overhauls in the tax code and massive new job spending projects, the GOP knives will dig hard into his political flesh and belittle his accomplishments and blast away at his proposals.
GOP leaders will do as they've done in his prior two State of the Union addresses and loudly shout that he's giving a partisan State of the Union speech that's tantamount to a reelection campaign stump speech that does nothing to allay the fears and worries of Americans about the country's economic malaise. But that's just GOP attack talk that rams even more politics into the State of the Union address. The days of a differential, somber and respectful listen to the president's State of the Union address are a thing of a nostalgic bygone past. Obama's state of the union speech will be no different than his other two. It will be under intense fire again.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network.
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