What’s at stake tonight?

Larry Sabato suggests that Barack Obama’s “credibility as president” will be on the line tonight when he gives his State of the Union address. I consider the speech far less consequential.
There comes a time when voters decide to tune out the president. It seems to me that Obama has just about reached that point, although only temporarily.
The electorate is clear, I think, that the power of the Democrats needs to be checked. If so, the die is cast for the November 2010 elections. To be sure, the precise scope of the Republican comeback has not been determined. However, that will turn on factors other than Obama’s speech — the economy, the ability of specific members of Congress to position themselves with their constituents, and the extent to which Democrats back away from unpopular legislation such as left-liberal health care reform, comprehensive immigration reform, and depriving workers of the secret ballot in order to boost unions.
As to Obama himself, I believe voters are taking a wait-and-see attitude. Will the economy improve significantly? Will he become more serious about dealing with the threat of terrorism? Will he behave more like the pragmatic, post-partisan they thought they were electing?
Obama can attempt to reassure the public on questions two and three tonight, and he would be well-advised to do so. But after a year of not closely adhering to his campaign promises, it’s unlikely that he can make much headway through another speech.
The best he can do tonight is to convey the impression that he is paying attention to the concerns of mainstream voters, as opposed to those of his left-wing base. He should not attempt to synthesize the two sets of concerns, as he loves to do. In the present circumstances, this would only make him appear inattentive and condescending.
At this point, merely avoiding that impression would represent a victory of sorts.


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