When President Obama was inaugurated a year ago, there was a sense of excitement in the cold Washington air. The nation’s first African American president. A new voice. A new leader, a mandate for change. Soaring rhetoric.

But much of the freshness of that day is now gone because of partisan political battles and because of a stubborn recession that has the country bleeding jobs. Perhaps, as come critics have claimed, the President and his advisers misunderstood their mandate and tried too many initiatives at once. At the same time, the Republicans in Congress have been as stubborn as the recession, unwilling to compromise, acting as though with three statewide election victories (but still only 41 Senate seats) they now have their own mandate to just say no. By my count, they are still a minority in Congress, at least until fall.

Enter the President for his State of the Union address tonight. More important than the specifics of his agenda for the next year is that he recapture his voice, his passion and his empathy for people that so excited the country last year. He needs to demonstrate that he’s in charge, but that he is listening to people, particularly about the economy.

He needs to say that we’re all in this together. He needs to appeal to our best selves. Like the community organizer he was, he needs to appeal to our sense of national community and our concern for others. Look at how Americans have responded with record donations to the disaster in Haiti. He needs to lay out a vision and inspire us to work together towards that vision.

His language has to be from the heart and believable.  I agree with some critics that Obama’s overuse lately of “fighting” as in fighting Wall Street and bankers doesn’t sound natural and seems more rhetorical than real. Certainly, tougher bank and Wall Street regulation is in order after what has happened.

He needs to stand in the shoes of the millions of Americans who have lost jobs or savings or houses during this recession and offer them hope and help. Some of his suggestions for the middle class such as expanded child care tax credits, limiting student loan payments and making retirement account enrollment automatic may be useful.

While acknowledging people’s anger about the economy and about Wall Street bonuses, he should not run from what he has done to try to break the back of the recession. The Congressional Budget Office said yesterday that aggressive action like the Wall Street bailouts when the economy was on the brink and the stimulus bill enacted last year “helped moderate the severity of the recession and shorten its duration.”

Difficult as it is for a Democrat to do in a recession, the president must also acknowledge that the federal government has to begin to battle the deficit. Obama’s suggestion for a spending freeze is more symbolic than substantive since it won’t affect the major portions of the budget: the military, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The Senate rejected his plan for a deficit commission, much like the military base closure commissions, which would make recommendations to Congress on steps to take to address the deficit and the Congress would have to vote yes or no. The president may appoint such a commission anyway. Spending on the three popular and essential entitlement programs is an issue, but there are solutions. Obama has to help us to understand how we get there.

The conventional wisdom is that Obama’s signature domestic initiative, health care reform, is dead. But I don’t think the president and the millions of people who would benefit from this reform can simply give up. He needs to make the case that reforming one-sixth of the economy is good for the country in the long-run and good for the economy. He needs to show that such reform will help not just the 45 million uninsured, but the rest of us as well. Somehow, the president who is so good at explaining things and connecting with people, hasn’t effectively made the case for reform. And he let the messy legislative debate and details overshadow the significance of the result.

He needs to remind us that everyone has to take some responsibility and that includes both political parties, business, labor and individuals. We can’t all have everything we want from the reform effort. This whole health care debate has been too much about what’s in it for me and not enough about isn’t this good for all of us. A recent critic of one of my health care blogs asked: Why should the country help the uninsured? After all, he’d been paying his own premiums for years. But what he forgets, and what most of us forget, is that our health insurance premiums get a tax break. Our mortgages get a huge tax break. High income people pay lower tax rates than middle income people. How is any of that different from providing a subsidy for a lower-income family, who doesn’t get those tax breaks, to purchase health insurance? This may be the last chance for years to do something about our antiquated health coverage system.

The president’s job performance poll numbers are down, but his personal popularity is still quite high. What he needs to do tonight is to reach out to the American people in a way that reminds them why they like him, why they elected him in the first place and why they should trust him, despite some of their concerns, to lead them for the next three or seven years. Obama has faced difficult times before and has rebounded with a clarifying speech. Tonight is the night for an encore performance to be followed by meaningful actions.



 

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