WASHINGTON — As President Barack Obama prepares to address Congress and the American people Tuesday night in what's effectively his first State of the Union address, he faces three key questions about how he'll use the moment.
First, will he reach out to the Republicans who've felt free to scorn him, or match his popularity against theirs and try to slap them back?
Second, how specific will he be about his plans for the coming days? Will he propose nationalizing troubled banks or lay the groundwork for such a dramatic action? Will he use his first proposed budget next week to advance a campaign to overhaul the nation's health-care system?
Third, will he continue the dire warnings he's used so far to prod Congress to follow his lead on rescuing the economy, or will he employ a more upbeat voice and say that help is on the way?
Now a month into his presidency, Obama will have a huge audience when he addresses the joint session of Congress, televised live at 9 p.m. EST Tuesday. It's likely to be his biggest since roughly 59 million people watched his inauguration last month.
This gives him another chance to make his case for the rush of actions he's already taken — first a $787 billion economic-stimulus package, then a $275 billion plan to rescue beleaguered homeowners from foreclosure — and for what's yet to come for banks, health care and more.
"This is huge for him,"' said Leila Brammer, a scholar of presidential communications at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. "It's big for any first-year president. But particularly for Obama. He came in with great momentum. Then he had a few stumbles. This is the time to recapture that momentum."
Whether he does that could determine how well he does in coming weeks and months.
Some things to watch for Tuesday night:
- Will he reach out to Republicans?
Obama loves to talk about changing the tone of politics. He's a genial, civil guy and enjoys having Republicans over for drinks, and they like him. They felt free to vote unanimously against his stimulus plan in the House of Representatives, however, and they rushed to challenge his housing rescue plan even before he announced it.
Their choice to give the Republican response Tuesday evening, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, has entertained talk of refusing to accept some of the money in the stimulus package.
Obama could continue to talk in his speech about bipartisanship, or he could remind Republicans that he's the one with broad support: 69 percent approval in the most recent McClatchy-Ipsos poll.
"Republicans don't seem to think they need to play ball with him right now," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. "There's no fear yet of President Obama."
So will Obama signal that he'll come to their states or districts and match his popularity against theirs? Or will he use the speech to remind them that some in their own ranks voted against the stimulus, then went home to brag about the benefits?
"His goal will be to make the Republican (fence) sitters on key policies seem out of step, obstructionist and dangerous to the future of the country," said Penni Pier, an associate professor of communication arts at Wartburg College in Iowa. "He may not be that direct, but certainly the implication will be there."
- How specific will he be about his agenda?
Though he already signed the stimulus into law, he'll still talk about it. For one thing, he needs to assure people that benefits are going to start pumping into the economy. He'll talk about his plans to shore up housing and how to use the second half of the bank bailout money.
He may talk about whether he's moving toward nationalizing insolvent banks and whether his proposed budget next week will include more money for health care, as he promised in the campaign.
"He's personally very popular. But he's proposed the largest peacetime spending in American history. And some of what he proposes to do is controversial," said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania.
"There are serious questions about whether this is the right course to take. He has to continue to work hard to make sure his approval rating doesn't drop, which would embolden Republicans and weaken his ability to lead."
- What kind of tone will he set?
Since Election Day, Obama's traded campaign talk of hope and "yes, we can" for a more sober message of hard times and warnings that things will get worse.
Some of that was simply straight talk; Obama would have sacrificed credibility had he engaged in booster talk only to see unemployment continue to rise. Some also was meant to prod Congress.
Now that he's achieved his first big initiatives, however, does he need to start building up confidence so that frightened consumers will start to spend?
"He has to reach a balance between realism about the current economic environment and the future," Madonna said. "He can't just be down in the mouth."
He could do that with the people he uses to illustrate enduring American values, such as American GIs who've served overseas, or US Airways pilot Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger, who successfully ditched his damaged jet in the Hudson River last month with no loss of life.
He also could do it in the way he closes the speech. Said Brammer of Gustavus Adolphus College: "He will need to leave us with a sense of hope, of overcoming and preserving."
STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESSES:
The practice of presidents speaking to Congress dates to George Washington in 1790, following the dictate of the Constitution that the president "shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."
Washington and John Adams delivered their addresses in person.
Thomas Jefferson, who was gifted with a pen but ill at ease speaking in public, also feared that the personal lecture to Congress appeared a little similar to the English king addressing Parliament. He dropped the young custom and sent his report in writing. The written reports persisted for more than a century.
Woodrow Wilson reinstated the personal address to Congress in 1913, a custom that's continued to this day. There have been a few exceptions. Wilson's stroke prevented him from appearing in 1919 and 1920; Calvin "Silent Cal" Coolidge sent five in writing. Herbert Hoover sent all four of his in writing. Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter also sent some in writing.
What's in a name? Barack Obama, like George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush before him, prefers not to call his first speech to Congress a "State of the Union" address. From 1790 to 1934, each annual report to Congress was called the "annual message."
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