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What Obama has to do tonight

obamasotuwalk.JPGMy big hope is that Barack Obama opens tonight's State of the Union by saying, "You want the State of the Union? You can't handle the State of the Union!" But barring that, I'm looking to see whether he uses tonight's speech as an opportunity to tell a story about the pain in the country and how it relates to the policies of his presidency or whether he backs off the broader project and offers a Clintonian barrage of small policies that sound good and do little.

I'm not big on the power of presidential rhetoric, but Americans are watching Congress scream and yell and bargain and compromise and are sickened by it. Junot Diaz's critique of Obama's performance overstates the role narrative plays in the presidency, I think, but he's not entirely wrong. For a president that took office based on narrative, Obama has not provided much of it in the months since his inauguration. Instead, he's left Congress to do its work, and the way Congress works has repulsed the country.

Obama has a chance to explain what it's all been for tonight, and why it's been worth trying, and is worth continuing. Tonight's speech is probably comparable to nothing so much as his address in the aftermath of the Reverend Wright videos: Obama has to take an appalling reality (in this case, Washington) and embed it in a larger context, a story that people want to be part of. If Obama doesn't give them that tonight, he's lost this country for a good, long time.

I'll blog something after the speech, but if you want moment-by-moment commentary, that'll be on my Twitter account, which you can follow here.

Update: Twitter link fixed. Sorry about that!

Photo credit: By Larry Downing/Reuters

By Ezra Klein  |  January 27, 2010; 6:05 PM ET
 
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Comments

Your twitter link goes to the New Yorker.

Posted by: cmo101 | January 27, 2010 6:24 PM | Report abuse

Is it really necessary for every commentator, journalist, and blogger to provide a "What Obama Has to Do Tonight" entry? It, frankly, has all the interest of Oscar predictions.

That is why I will be watching the SOTU on C-Span--totally commentary free.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | January 27, 2010 6:30 PM | Report abuse

I'm just wondering how many Republicans (or "moderate" Democrat Senators) will be looking for the right spot to yell "You Lie!", "You're a Socialist", or some other asinine & childish comment.

Posted by: JERiv | January 27, 2010 7:12 PM | Report abuse

I hope he speaks in broad and ambiguous generalities, repeats the phrase "I will never stop fighting for you" a dozen times, says the problem with healthcare was he didn't make enough speeches, and states his intent to become Micromanager-In-Chief with a broad array of tiny policy initiatives.

I also helps he breaks the State of the Union record for the use of the words "I", "me" and "my".

Hey, a guy can dream, can't he?

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 27, 2010 7:58 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,

Lets keep our ears open and our mouths closed for long enough to hear what the man has to say plus a count of about five in order to absorb it all. Then we can say how if it were only us doing the talking, it would be all better.

Seriously, the Republicans and most major interest group has already spent a lot of time and money preparing rebuttal remarks for whatever President Obama might say tonight. The only listening going on will be to ensure they can pillory the speach in just their own way.

Posted by: Jaycal | January 27, 2010 8:06 PM | Report abuse

Kevin, seek help. You're being almost as much of an embarrassment now as you were in the fall of '08 when you were getting excited about Sarah Palin. It's not my fault you wasted your life shilling for fools like Bush and the other lunatic Republicans, but some contrition might be in order, given your track record of moral and intellectual failure in life.

Posted by: tyromania | January 27, 2010 9:19 PM | Report abuse

Was re-reading Gary Jacobson's work on the 1994 election the other night, and his key points are these: election victories built on the promise of united government can be easily undermined by ruthless use of the filibuster; the promise of change is malleable in the minds of voters, and can easily be redirected in the opposite direction if united government is perceived as ineffective.

The post-Dole Senate GOP has mastered the tactic of making government not work when in the minority. The only way to deal with this is to inflict a beating upon it.

It'd be nice if Obama could actually put some bully into the bully-pulpit, and instead of punching hippies, hit out at Congress. But that's the stuff of fantasy.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | January 27, 2010 9:27 PM | Report abuse

Or maybe not:

"To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills. And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that sixty votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well."

We'll see if that translates into action.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | January 27, 2010 10:13 PM | Report abuse

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