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Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Commentary by Earl Ofari Hutchinson 

WASHINGTON - President Obama’s State of the Union address, scheduled for tonight, is under fire before he has even uttered a single word. Not that this should come as any surprise.

The State of the Union is one of the most avidly watched and dissected political speeches of the year. It’s a president’s report card on the initiatives, challenges and accomplishments of his administration, as well as the articulation of his vision for the country going forward. Presidents are keenly aware that the speech boosts the stature, prestige, and power of their office—and usually their approval ratings by a point or two. They also know that the opposition’s response to the speech is invariably feeble, uninspiring, and instantly discounted by the few Americans who bother to watch. In some cases, the opposition response can even backfire. That’s what happened in 2009, when Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindahl, an Indian-American touted as a GOP rising star, fumbled and bumbled through what most political observers deemed a mean-spirited, petty retort to Obama’s expansive, statesmanlike, positivel remarks.

The history of the State of the Union speech underscores its power to shape policy and bolster a president’s image. President James Monroe announced the Monroe Doctrine during his 1823 address. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln called for the end of slavery in the rebellious South—a prelude to the Emancipation Proclamation he issued a year later. In 1913, Woodrow Wilson warned of the dangers of impending war. Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 address outlined his Great Society program to fight poverty, Bill Clinton’s 1993 speech laid out his plans for health care reform, and George Bush used his speeches in 2002 and 2003 to prepare the nation for the Iraq invasion (and to debut the phrase "axis of evil"). Presidents have latched on to media innovations to give their State of the Union speeches more exposure and political wallop. Calvin Coolidge gave the first radio broadcast in 1923, Truman the first televised speech in 1947.

The preemptive attacks on President Obama’s address have been partisan, familiar, and absurd. GOP Georgia Rep. Paul Broun, with no inkling of what Obama would actually say, told a radio caller that he would not sit next to a Democrat during the speech “when Obama spews his venom.” Broun was reacting to a proposal by the Washington D.C. policy think tank Third Way that Democrats and Republicans mix up their seating during the speech, instead of remaining on separate sides, as has become customary.

GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, jumped on reports that Obama will call for more increased federal spending on infrastructure, research, and small business. The Kentucy Republican blamed Obama’s supposed runaway federal spending for getting the country into the economic mess of the last two years. This, of course, ignores the truth—that what pushed the economy to near-collapse was the Bush administration’s unprecedented giveaway to Big Business and Wall Street, aided and abetted by the Republicans (including McConnell) who controlled Congress for much of Bush’s tenure. Indeed, Obama’s renewed call for more strategic spending—assuming that’s what his speech actually says—fits in with the public’s demand that his administration refocus its time, talent and energy on jobs and the economy.

Obama has gotten that message, as he’s shown by a string of recent moves: his stimulus measures in the tax-cut extension; his high-profile appointments of business-friendly William Dailey as White House chief of staff and G.E.’s Jeffrey Immelt and Wall Street insider Gene Sperling as key economic advisors; and his remarks about business and investment during Chinese President Hu’s state visit. 

Obama critics have even reached back a year, picking apart his 2010 State of the Union address and haranguing him for allegedly lashing out at Republicans. The website Business Insider headlined its SOTU piece with the question, “A Less Partisan State of the Union Speech?” and scolded Obama for last year''s criticism of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case. 

That 5-to-4 ruling, issued just before the 2010 address, opened the floodgate for corporations to pour unlimited dollars into political campaigns with minimal checks and accountability. Major corporations and financial institutions wasted little time taking advantage of this new opportunity, pouring tens of millions into the midterm election campaigns. The bulk of money, as Obama and the Democrats predicted, went to corporate-friendly GOP candidates and incumbents. In singling out the high court for its politically lethal ruling, Obama did what other presidents have done: he used the State of the Union speech to warn of impending threats to democracy—in this case, a conservative-majority ruling that threatens to turn elections into the exclusive preserve of the super-rich.

The shrill warnings that President Obama will give a partisan State of the Union address this year make less sense this year than ever before. Polls show that Americans applaud the president for his even-handed eulogy after the Tucson killings and his willingness to compromise with the GOP on extending tax cuts for the wealthy in exchange for extending jobless benefits and tax cuts for the middle class. 

Americans overwhelmingly want the Obama administration and Congress to end their rancor and work together on the problems and issues facing this troubled nation. Expect President Obama to extend his hand once again to the GOP come Tuesday night.



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