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Obama's State Of The Union: What To Watch For

Ryan Faughnder |
January 24, 2012 | 9:43 a.m. PST

Executive Editor

No doubt, Tuesday night's State of the Union address will be, in part, a campaign speech. President Barack Obama’s third such address, which he’ll deliver at 9 p.m. ET, is so widely anticipated that his potential Republican rival Mitt Romney has already delivered a “pre-rebuttal” in Florida, highlighting the continued economic strife suffered in that state since the burst of the housing bubble. (Romney is looking to bounce back in Florida from an upset loss to Newt Gingrich in Saturday's South Carolina primary.) 

President Barack Obama (Courtesy of White House photo commons)
President Barack Obama (Courtesy of White House photo commons)

If Romney is the nominee selected to face incumbent in November, much of the national conversation will surely focus on taxes, specifically Romney’s 15 percent rate from capital gains income, and the policy discussions of economic fairness that it implies. Which brings us to…

Economic equality (and mobility)

Thanks, Occupy Wall Street. The widening income gap in the United States has become an important theme in Obama’s political strategy, as evidenced by his Kansas speech in December in which he called the present day a “make or break moment for the middle class.” Obama is expected to continue using that thematic framework Tuesday night.

Interestingly, the definition of income inequality has changed. “Income inequality used to be reserved as a tool to measure the gap between rich and poor,” notes a Denver Post editorial. “What has changed is that the marker now measures the difference between the rich and the middle class.”

Alan Kreuger, Obama’s lead economic advisor, has spoken at length about income inequality and the various causes. In this speech, he hammers on the importance of economic mobility to the conversation. “Higher income inequality would be less of a concern if low-income earners became high-income earners at some point in their career, or if children of low-income parents had a good chance of climbing up the income scales when they grow up,” he said, citing evidence that economic mobility has worsened in recently years.

Economic outlook

A 8.5 percent unemployment rate isn’t great, especially if you add everyone who has given up looking for work, but it’s better than it has been in three years. Obama will tout this as a success and point to sectors such as manufacturing, which is steadily improving. Obama called manufacturing “a good news story,” according to The Daily Caller.

However, that says nothing of what Obama would do over the next four years if he were reelected. On this point, Jonathan Alter, writing for Bloomberg, has a message: Go big, or go home. "He should implement a creative growth policy that combines yet more incentives for new businesses (it’s new, not just small, businesses that create jobs) and fresh thinking like vouchers for veterans to use for employment with nonprofits," he writes.

Death to the laundry list?

State of the Union Addresses are notorious for many reasons. They’re typically long (Obama’s last one was over 6,000 words) and not particularly exciting in terms of rhetoric. They often run through a catalog of policy goals for the next year, even when some of those goals seem to mentioned cursorily and out of habit (ending our dependence on foreign oil, anyone?). Eliot Spitzer, writing at Slate, goes as far as to offer a modest proposal, suggesting the president reformat his speech to a 10 minute rundown with visual aids. 

It’s probably tempting to avoid the laundry list of policy proposals and jump right into the soaring rhetoric. But, writes Robert Lehrman at Politico, the State of the Union’s traditional format serves its pragmatic purpose by giving a preview of the year ahead and a statement of thematic ideas. Really. In the past 50 years, presidents averaged about 36 requests per SOTU,” he argues. “Even with divided governments, about 41 percent on average become law. Disregard the platitudes. Find the policy. Like Waldo — it’s there.”

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