Naturally, in the pursuit of a narrative structure to the news, pundits and journalists alike have seized upon the victory of Scott Brown in Massachusetts as proof that the Democratic party is going down in flames. Thus, they look to President Obama’s State of the Union address on Wednesday as a last chance shot at fixing everything. Obvious criticisms of hyperbole aside, what is the truth of the importance of the speech? Are some in the media over-hyping it, or is this really the last chance for Obama to keep his party in power in 2010?
The president will command a large audience, as all major networks carry the speech live. That means he has, at least for a few days, complete control over media discussions. Even this alone makes the speech an important one. But the media’s narrative seems to hint at something darker – poll numbers falling, Americans unhappy, and stories of impending doom for Democrats. On this front, the president’s speech can do very little. He can’t recruit great Democratic candidates for each close race. He can’t force Congress to pass healthcare reform. And he can’t control the Republican party. It’s an important speech, but on it’s own, it can do very little.
But let’s say that the speech has legs. And let’s say it gets talking points out that resonate with the American people and are picked up Democratic contenders. Now the speech has extended its longevity. Recent news reports indicate that Obama is taking a more active role in party strategizing for the upcoming midterm elections. This speech could be a kickoff for that larger effort. Obama demonstrated that his words help to get rid of cynicism; he’s best when appealing to our hopes. A message of “America on the mend” could go far.
On the other hand, with each great speech Obama gives, the stakes get higher. Just as soaring rhetoric inspires people to action, it also gives them a lot of expectations. While I believe a large number of people prefer a pragmatic approach to governance, some want action now. (Whether you think this makes Obama simply a liberal Bush is another issue entirely.) Words without action can get even the most ardent supporters to tune out.
And there’s always the Republican wildcard. Right now, the party seems to be flying high after a victory in Massachusetts. The media has picked up the story and relates most Democratic troubles back to the special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat. While Obama’s speech will dislodge that main narrative, it still can be linked back. “Obama said X, Y, Z, because he knows the Democrats have lost their way.” It almost writes itself.
On the one hand, it seems likely that there is nothing Obama can do to steer the media away from these connections. He may even welcome them in his speech. On the other hand, the dominant narrative in the media needs to be supported by Republican efforts. In 1994, they had the “Contract with America.” It presented them as a party united against the efforts of a Democratic president. But will they be able to do the same thing in 2010? So far in the Obama presidency, Republicans have been really good at opposing Obama, but not so good at coming up with their own agenda. Partly this is due to their minority power, but it also has to do with general post-Bush fragmentation. Scott Brown, senator-elect, is a good example of this. His victory, despite Tea-Party endorsement, was hardly a victory for strong conservatives. Massachusetts wasn’t rejecting Kennedy’s legacy and voting in someone different; they voted for a social and economic moderate. But most of the Republican power comes from strong conservatives; there’s not a Scott Brown for each and every race.
Whatever the stakes, I’m looking forward to the speech. I generally watch the State of the Union every year, and having Obama deliver it makes it so much more exciting. And no matter what the press says, Obama is still the president until 2012 (and hopefully 2016). Poll numbers after 1 year have little to say about what the future looks like.