When President Obama delivers his upcoming State of the Union address, he will be speaking for the first time to an audience in the Capitol with more Republicans than Democrats. Obama may not like this -- he may have tried in vain to prevent it -- but the new reality in Congress has already been good to him.
On Nov. 3, 2010, the day Americans went to the polls and changed 63 House districts from Democrat to Republican, Obama's job approval rating was around 45 percent. After a lame duck session in which Obama negotiated on a variety of issues not with outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi but with incoming Speaker John Boehner -- most notably, to keep the current tax rate intact -- his job approval rating has ranged from the low to mid-50s.
If he says the right things on Tuesday night, he can even make it better.
Giving the titular head of the opposition party unsolicited advice presents an interesting conundrum: Do you really tell him what he should do -- or, if you do so, do you hope he ignores good advice? Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, is on record hoping Barack Obama is a one-term president
. Surely most conservatives would concur. But Obama is the president now and for the next two years, so the question is put to a variety of movement conservatives: WWYHOS (What would you have Obama say)?
One hope is that the president will use Tuesday's speech to continue his recent move to the center. He can do this in two ways.
First, he can accomplish this by avoiding overly partisan rhetoric, which he's shown he can do skillfully and demonstrated Jan. 12 at the Tucson memorial
. But he does not always take the high road. A case in point was Obama's 2010 State of the Union when he excoriated the U.S. Supreme Court for tossing out congressionally mandated curbs on political speech.
Second, the president can focus on an issue that is of increasing concern to conservatives as well as independents: the exploding federal budget deficits. Obama's recent search for the middle ground during the lame duck session helped him politically, but also provided policy victories to both Republicans (on taxes) and Democrats (with the START treaty ratification). Bill Clinton's political advisers called this policy "triangulation," a term that eventually became pejorative. But a liberal president who moves toward the center has nothing to apologize for -- that's where the balance of power is among voters. And conservatives certainly don't need to be reminded that after Democrats lost the Congress in the midterm elections of 1994, Clinton began triangulating, and won reelection two years later.
"If President Obama truly wants to remake his presidency -- which has, thus far, disappointed so many of his supporters who hoped for fundamental change -- he can do so not just by continuing [the tone he set in Tucson], but by announcing a dramatic plan of pro-growth steps," said Ben Domenech
, a research fellow at The Heartland Institute.
"Obama has an opportunity to continue steps toward triangulation in these remarks in a huge way, particularly if he's willing to create some distance between himself and the leadership of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid," Domenech added.
Steven F. Hayward,
a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute
, agrees there is a chance Obama could use this speech to change his image.
"Obama needs to be more specific and direct than Bill Clinton's famous 'era of big government is over' pronouncement in 1996," said Hayward. "Obama needs to signal that he's truly serious about fiscal reform -- entitlements and the tax code -- so that there is no ambiguity about whether he's just posturing to set up his re-election campaign next year."
True that, says Erick Erickson, managing editor of the influential conservative blog site RedState.
But Erickson also said in an interview that conservatives shouldn't hold their breath Tuesday night waiting for Obama to sound like a genuine centrist on policy issues, especially concerning the Democratic Party's sacred entitlement cows.
"Conservatives should not expect anything from the president's speech unless he decides to get serious about entitlement reform and substantive spending cuts -- neither of which he is actually ideological capable of delivering on," he said.
Morton Blackwell, founder and president of the conservative Leadership Institute
makes a related point. He says he expects Obama to sound conciliatory in his speech, but not to change much in his approach at governing. "Most leftist ideologues go after their opposition's arguments with hammer and tong," said Blackwell. "Obama states opponents' positions favorably and then acts consistently with his leftist ideology."
It appears the real question is whether or not President Obama uses this high-profile speech to hit the "reset" button. If he does, expect at least some conservatives to praise his remarks. If not, it could be a long two years.