Opinion: Obama must bring back the opportunity society

Tonight, President Obama has the kind of opportunity that former President Clinton had in 1996 — a chance to jumpstart his presidency, set the framework for his election and show that he has a dynamic agenda for America’s future in the 21st century.

The mess on the Republican side, along with improving economic numbers, has given him a singular opportunity to break through with the American people. The Republican presidential candidates have now proved as fractious and mean-spirited as the Republicans in Congress, widening the president’s opportunity.

So he has to give a speech that is long on job creation and short on rhetoric that could be interpreted as class warfare. In this speech, he has to bring America together and rise above politics and partisanship. It’s a time for tough words on Iran along with strong support for Israel. It’s a time to embrace optimism and the ability of America to succeed in the face of adversity. And it’s time to mend fences with the business community by bringing back offshore profits to jumpstart the economy. Above all, he has to give Americans renewed hope in his ability to restore the American Dream for this and the next generation.

In 1996, President Clinton used his SOTU speech to declare that the economy was the best it’s been in a generation and to say that the “era of big government is over.” These two themes were critical in taking President Clinton out of the trap of appearing to be a Democratic big spender and taxer and put him on the side of generating a new economy with expanded opportunities for all Americans. After the speech, he opened up a lead on the Republicans that they were never able to close.

So Job No. 1 for President Obama tonight is not to declare that the economy is mended, but to say that it is mending. There are always a million contingency plans for the economy going wrong, but the president will win only if people believe it is going right. With strong corporate earnings, improved holiday sales and diminished unemployment, the president should declare that while we have a long way to go, this economy is getting on the right track. He now has about 6 months to show that he has been taking the country in the right direction through all the economic storms, and he has to start that debate off in the State of the Union. The more he can convince people that the economy is beginning to head in the right direction, the more his chances at reelection will improve.

Job No. 2 is to show that he is serious about creating new economic opportunity in a changing world. America has the talent but isn’t producing the engineers and computer scientists the country needs. Its manufacturing base has continued to erode, and its education and training systems are in need of reform. It’s behind even in broadband. The president has to have more programs that are about teaching people how to fish and fewer about giving them fish. The theme has to be how he will bring back the “opportunity society” that is the bedrock of American success and the creation of the American middle class.

Job No. 3 is to assure people he is serious about closing the deficit. And he has to do it in a way that does not give the appearance of simply wanting to raise taxes for bigger government. Here is where the plans to cut defense spending and reinvent government show how he is willing to put the government on a diet rather than just shovel in more dessert.

And finally, he has to assure the American people he is ready to break the gridlock on issues like immigration reform that have sat around in the hopper for nearly a decade now and pledge to move them forward. It’s also a chance to introduce tax reform that lowers income tax rates on hard-working professionals but raises rates on capital to eliminate the Buffett problem without penalizing those who work their way to success.

President Obama has quite rightly raised the issue of fairness. But in doing so, he has to further, not undermine, the twin theme of opportunity. He has to make it a false choice — that opportunity and fairness go hand in hand as Andrew Jackson declared this a country of “Equal opportunity for all, special privileges for none.” If he seems only to be punishing those who have just come through the door of opportunity, then he risks undermining the speech and his chances for reelection. That is the greatest danger in his approach in what otherwise is a night of opportunity perhaps for the American people but certainly for him.

Penn was senior adviser and pollster to President Clinton in the 1996 reelection and is now CEO of Burson-Marsteller and Penn Schoen Berland.