“No drama-Obama” is walking into the lion’s den Tuesday — and he couldn’t be happier about it.
President Obama will use this year’s State of the Union Address to draw a clear line between himself and congressional Republicans. He’s looking forward to a slew of television shots showing grim-faced GOP lawmakers reacting with stony silence to policy pitches he hopes will resonate with middle-class voters in an election year.
The White House has said in no uncertain terms that Obama’s path to another term will be cleared by open conflict with a Republican-controlled House that is deeply unpopular with voters, so observers expect a pugnacious Obama to take the lectern in his last State of the Union Address before the November election.
“President Obama’s approval ratings may not be great, but Congress’s hover near single digits — so if there’s one slam-dunk opponent for Obama to take on this fall, it’s the 535 men and women who will be sitting in front of him,” said David Meadvin, the president of Inkwell Strategies. Meadvin is a former speechwriter for both Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidTo Build Back Better, we need a tax system where everyone pays their fair share Democrats say Biden must get more involved in budget fight Biden looks to climate to sell economic agenda MORE (D-Nev.) and Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderOregon legislature on the brink as Democrats push gerrymandered maps Christie, Pompeo named co-chairs of GOP redistricting group Democrats look to state courts as redistricting battle heats up MORE.
“As we saw back in 2010 when Obama used his speech to take the Supreme Court to task, Obama has no problem defying tradition or ruffling some feathers,” he added. “He only stands to gain politically by picking a fight with Congress.”
Though Obama did attack the court last year over a campaign finance decision he disliked, the president’s last State of the Union was wrapped in conciliation. In the days after the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), lawmakers in both parties sought to cool tensions — with Republicans and Democrats sitting side-by-side in some cases to highlight the mood.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she might have a GOP partner this year too, but made it clear the seating arrangement would not mask clear tensions at this year’s address.
“It’s a nice gesture, but ... let’s not fool ourselves into saying we’re singing Kumbaya,” she said Wednesday.
Opponents said they’re confident that Obama will take shots at Republicans throughout an address they suggest is more about the state of the president’s campaign than the union.
“I don’t think there’s any question that this is another stump speech,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye. “He’s been in full on-campaign mode. The campaign has been a part of every planned activity that has come out of the White House, and the State of the Union is a part of that.”
One former senior Obama administration official said the speech represents a moment where the president can “tee up his agenda, air his grievances about congressional Republicans and chart what lies ahead.”
“He can definitely use the opportunity to score a few political points,” the former aide said.
While there might be some finger-wagging, don’t expect a trash-talking president. After all, you can’t exactly walk into someone else’s house, sit on the living room couch and drop some insults.
“I doubt it will be a hectoring and haranguing kind of speech,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant who worked in the Clinton White House. “But you’ll definitely see a firm president who will definitely be putting down his markers.
“In some form or fashion, you might hear a little of ‘If Congress won’t do it, I will.’”
This will give Obama an opportunity — with the lights and attention on him — to show that he’s the adult in the room, and as Democratic consultant Karen Finney put it, to show that “Republicans have been childish.
“In a respectable way, he can say, ‘I’m not going to play your games any more,’” Finney said.
While the White House has kept a tight lid on the specifics of an address it has been working on for weeks, Obama told supporters over the weekend that the address will be a “bookend” to a speech he made last month in Kansas, where he talked about a “make or break moment” for the middle class.
“We can go in two directions,” Obama said. “One is toward less opportunity and fairness. Or we can fight for where I think we need to go: building an economy that works for everyone, not just a wealthy few.”
In a video released Saturday, Obama said his blueprint will include several elements: American manufacturing “with more good jobs and more products stamped with ‘Made in America,’” as well as American energy “fueled by homegrown and alternative energy sources,” along with skills for American workers — “getting people the education and training they need so they’re ready to take on the jobs of today and tomorrow.”
Aides have stopped shy of saying whether the president will tout his “We Can’t Wait” initiative, in which Obama has been using a series of executive orders to go it alone without the help of Congress. But White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Friday that Obama will “eagerly join” with Congress when it wants to act to get the people’s business done.
At the same time, the White House has pushed back at suggestions the State of the Union will be Obama’s first major stump speech of his reelection bid, insisting Obama will focus on policy in the address, just three days after the South Carolina primary.
“Look, there are going to be a lot of opportunities, including in Charlotte, for the president to give political speeches,” Carney told reporters last week in a reference to Obama’s decision to accept his party’s nomination in a football stadium at the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina. “This will be heavy on substance.”
But one thing is clear: The speech will likely set the tone for what Obama will tout on the campaign stump, as he attempts to not only seek the support of centrists to win the election but to reignite his base.
“The underlying message will be, ‘I’m a guy who’s looking out for you,’” Finney said, adding that Obama will attempt to hammer home the middle-class theme.
Finney said Obama “can’t really worry about whether or not it’s going to sound like a campaign speech” but must seek a “firm and respectful” tone without being combative.
Given the timing of the address, it has the makings of a major television-watching event.
“As a professional speechwriter and former Capitol Hill staffer,” Meadvin said the “State of the Union is like the Super Bowl, the Oscars and the Fourth of July all wrapped into one, and I think this year will be particularly entertaining.”