n January of 1998, Bill Clinton stepped into the well of the House of Representatives to deliver his State of the Union address. Behind him was then Speaker Newt Gingrich; before him, a hostile GOP majority. The Republicans wanted nothing more than to get their tax-cutting hands on the emerging federal budget surplus. But Clinton preempted them with four simple words, declaring in the speech that the surpluses should be used to “save Social Security first.” As Michael Waldman, Clinton’s chief speechwriter, recalls in his memoir POTUS Speaks: “The Democrats leapt to their feet, cheering. Gingrich paused for a discernible instant—then he, too, stood, applauding … In that instant, a trillion dollars silently shifted on the budget ledger from the column marked ‘tax cut’ to the column marked ‘Social Security.’”
When Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address this year, he too will face a hostile Republican House majority, plus an expanded and radicalized Senate GOP minority. Pundits will expect him to express some humility in light of his party’s November shellacking, and a greater willingness to find common ground with his opponents. And so he should; the circumstances demand it. But in judging the speech, what I’ll really be looking for is whether he offers, as Clinton learned to do, the kind of shrewd and surprising ideas that can turn unpromising political circumstances to his and the country’s advantage.
The White House can find a few such ideas in this issue of the Washington Monthly, in which we asked a group of writers, scholars, and White House veterans for their advice about what the president should say in his speech.
For example, while most commentators on the left are warning Obama not to travel down the deficit-cutting road, Howard Dean, leader of the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” begs to differ. The deficit, Dean writes, is “both our country’s greatest threat and the GOP’s greatest vulnerability.” Dean argues that by leading on the issue, Obama can force Republicans to choose between cutting social programs like Medicare, which would anger their Tea Party base, or angering the corporate sector—their other base—by cutting defense spending and similar thickets of crony capitalism.
Former Reagan policy analyst Bruce Bartlett suggests that instead of bargaining only with Republican congressional leaders—whose ability or willingness to compromise is virtually nil—Obama should elevate “a better class of Republicans.” In his speech, says Bartlett, Obama should mention by name certain conservative thinkers, Republican governors, or GOP elder statesmen who have expressed impatience with the intellectual vacuousness and relentless obstructionism of their fellow party members. Doing so would confer immense status on these independent Republican voices. Over time, they could become useful partners in advancing Obama’s agenda, much as GOP wise men like Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft were enlisted to pressure Republican lawmakers on the START treaty this fall.
Obama’s toughest challenge will be to propose new ideas for the economy that can boost jobs without further draining the treasury. Energy investor Jeffrey Leonard has one to offer. Small businesses, normally the source of most new jobs, have not been hiring, Leonard reports, in part because their larger corporate customers have increasingly adopted the abusive policy of not paying their bills on time. If the president were to announce in his State of the Union that the federal government simply won’t do business with corporations that indulge in such practices, he’ll win the hearts of entrepreneurs across the country.
Elsewhere in the issue, Leonard offers an even bolder proposal: in the wake of his failed effort to pass cap-and-trade legislation, Obama should call for the cutting of all energy subsidies. Such an audacious move would actually be in the long-term competitive advantage of wind, solar, and other green energy sources because they receive only a tiny sliver of the subsidy pie, which mostly goes to fossil fuels. And with anti-pork Tea Partiers and budget hawks riding high in Washington, it might be doable.
As numerous commentators have said, Obama needs to show he “gets it” and acknowledge the conservative surge. But he needn’t acquiesce to conservatives, nor make theatrical shows of “fighting” them. Instead, he needs to move from a strategy of overwhelming force (marshalling his congressional Democratic majority to pass health care legislation against united GOP opposition) to one of subtle jiujitsu (negotiating a tax deal with Republicans that manages to deliver a rabbit-out-of-his-hat stimulus package). After all, Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton spent most of their presidencies contending with divided government, yet still cleverly managed to move their agendas forward. So can Obama.