The Fate of the Union

By Dan Froomkin
2:04 PM ET, 02/23/2009

Obama and Biden meeting with the governors this morning. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

President Obama must achieve a number of outwardly contradictory goals in tomorrow night's address to a joint session of Congress -- essentially his first State of the Union speech.

He needs to explain how the extraordinary spending spree required to stimulate the economy and stem the foreclosure crisis is not actually in conflict with his intention to halve the deficit in four years. He has to be blunt about the severity of the current financial crisis, while at the same time expressing confidence in a strong recovery. He needs to play to the ultimate inside-the-Beltway audience in the room, while simultaneously speaking directly to a huge national audience that has grown skeptical of Washington's ways. And he needs to rebut the partisan attacks on his stimulus and mortgage plans, even as he calls for an end to tit-for-tat politics and urges members of both parties to work together.

All in a night's work for the Great Explainer? Perhaps.

Obama may have telegraphed some of his strategy this morning, when he addressed the nation's governors at the White House.

He described the extraordinary stimulus bill he signed last week as a plan "to put Americans to work doing the work America needs done" that will "make an immediate impact while laying the foundation for a lasting growth and prosperity."

He vowed to end "business as usual" when it comes to federal spending, promising "to watch the taxpayers' money with more rigor and transparency than ever."

And while acknowledging "legitimate concerns" from Republicans about some small parts of the stimulus package, he lashed out once again at the level of political discourse in Washington -- and particularly on cable television.

"I just want us to not lose perspective of the fact that most of the things that have been the topic of argument over the last several days amount to a fraction of the overall stimulus package. This sometimes gets lost in the cable chatter," he said. "I just want to make sure that we're having an honest debate ..

"[I]f we agree on 90 percent of this stuff, and we're spending all our time on television arguing about 1, 2, 3 percent of the spending in this thing, and somehow it's being characterized in broad brush as wasteful spending, that starts sounding more like politics. And that's what right now we don't have time to do....

"What I don't want us to do, though, is to just get caught up in the same old stuff that inhibits us from acting effectively and in concert. There's going to be ample time for campaigns down the road."

And early this afternoon, kicking off a "Fiscal Responsibility Summit" at the White House, Obama talked about fiscal restraint. "As we take the steps that we must to get through the crisis we're in now, we will not lose sight of the long-term," he said. "I refuse to leave our children with a debt they cannot repay."

As for tomorrow night, Jeff Zeleny writes in the New York Times: "President Obama will use his first address to Congress on Tuesday to present a road map for 'how we get to a better day,' a senior adviser says, in a speech intended to explain his economic policies and argue that legislative revisions on health care, education and energy are crucial to lifting the economy.

"The appearance before a joint session of the Senate and the House offers an opportunity for Mr. Obama to reprise some themes and initiatives from his campaign that have been overshadowed by the economic emergency that has defined the first month of his presidency....

"While the presidential address will be threaded with themes of optimism, in part to counter some criticism that Mr. Obama has been 'talking down' the economy, aides said his words would reflect the harsh reality of the challenges facing the country.

"'This is a speech to look forward, not back,' [senior adviser David] Axelrod said. 'The country is looking for a clear sense of direction. This is an opportunity to talk to the nation about that.'"

Matt Spetalnick writes for Reuters that "with his approval ratings high and his presidential honeymoon far from over, he will seek to regain momentum this week and build on an early flurry of legislative successes, financial initiatives and diplomatic moves....

"He will also lay out his broader agenda, including the goal of revamping health care, something he promised during the presidential campaign but which critics say is unrealistic now given budget pressures from bailout and stimulus measures...

"'This is a ritual for all new presidents,' said Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University. 'But considering the desperate economic situation, you can be sure people are going to be hanging on every word.'"

E. J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "When President Obama addresses the nation tomorrow, he should not be distracted by Washington's obsessions over partisanship and ideology....

"In our battered industrial heartland, there is... a strong sentiment that the president should disentangle himself from Washington as much as possible, hard as that may be for a man who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. His obligation is to be the nation's leader, not the capital's ringmaster....

"[W]hen it comes to bipartisanship, the point is not the numerical count of Republicans who vote for this or that. It's whether frightened citizens sense that government is working."

Jonathan Alter writes in Newsweek: "He knows that now is not the moment to cheerlead, not when the financial players are lying dazed on the field. There will be time for that, when the banks have been 'restructured' (see, that sounds better than 'nationalized') and the credit starts flowing again....

"Obama is betting on two things: first, that people are so tired of being bamboozled that a little straight talk about their woes will make them feel more in control, the prerequisite for genuine confidence. And second, that he'll get props for trying, that the very effort of riding events instead of letting them ride him will at least offer the illusion of mastery. Once these mental pieces are fastened in place and we're fully 'in recovery,' to use therapy lingo, the enduring problems won't seem so terrifying anymore."

But New York Times opinion columnist Maureen Dowd worries that Obama is missing a key emotion: "Mr. Obama's egghead manner has failed to soothe a nation with the jits. Maybe he has been so intent on avoiding the stereotype of the Angry Black Man, as he wrote in his memoir, that it's hard for him to connect with and articulate public anger about our diminishment.

"Though he demonstrated in the campaign that he has a rare gift for inspiring the country with new belief in itself, Mr. Obama has not yet captured either the grit the moment requires or the fury it provokes."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company