It’s a curious fact of the Obama presidency that the American people basically tuned him out during much of his first term. Despite his stellar communications skills, Obama was unable to convince Americans to support his signature program — Obamacare — and none of his prior state of the union speeches seems to have moved the needle. We also know that the president’s utterances on behalf of Democrats in 2010 didn’t sway public opinion, at least not in the way he intended.
This changed in 2012, though. With a presidential election on the horizon, and with the economy slowly improving, the public naturally wanted to hear what Obama had to say. And his message — that Republicans are evil — was easier on the ears than the ones that folks had tuned out — the virtues of Obamacare, the strength of the recovery, etc.
As the public settled, albeit quite narrowly, on Obama as its preferred candidate, it naturally began to view him in a more favorable light. In reality, he may have been seen as “the lesser of two evils,” but most voters would rather not view their decision that way. And Obama’s victory renewed his status as a “winner.” People tend to listen to winners.
By December, the public was ready to tune out politics. But the looming tax increase meant that attention still had to be paid. For a man of Obama’s talent, the transition from campaign rhetoric denouncing Republicans as tools of the rich to post-campaign rhetoric denouncing Republicans as tools of the rich was not difficult.
But now there is no election, no looming middle class tax increase, and no particular reason to listen to Obama. Accordingly, barring a major crisis down the road, Obama’s state of the union speech may well be the last address Obama delivers as president that receives serious public attention. Alternatively, it may be the first of a long line of Obama speeches that the public ignores.
Assuming the former scenario, the speech takes on the appearance of a high stakes affair. With potential battles ahead over sequestration, the tax ceiling, and the continuing resolution, Obama desperately needs to reclaim the winning hand he held in December by re-coupling the concepts of spending cuts and tax increases for the wealthy. I expect the president to make this the central point of his address.
His theme, I imagine, will be that we can solve the debt crisis while continuing to do great things as a country, if only Republicans will agree to eliminating tax breaks for the rich that they have already put on the table, at least in principle. The sub-theme will be that if arbitrary budget-slashing results in cuts in services and a stalling of the “recovery,” it will be the fault of Republicans who are unwilling to have the “rich” pay “their fair share.”
Obama is convinced he can win this debate — he has said as much — and he may well be right. But you can’t win a debate that people aren’t listening to. No matter how hard Obama pounds Republicans tomorrow night — and we should expect quite a pounding — the speech is likely to have a short half-life, with no obvious opportunity for a notable sequel on the horizon.