Why Obama's Speech Shouldn't Promise Too Much

The president's State of the Union message should be good but not great if he wants to keep his winning streak going.


After his inaugural address; his first State of the Union; his speeches in Philadelphia, Denver, Springfield and Oslo; and the 2004 Democratic convention speech, during which he proclaimed "there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America," everybody knows that President Barack Obama can give a great speech.

If any doubters remained, they were gone after the president's rousing tribute to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the victims of the Tucson massacre. If he's re-elected in two years, we'll look back on Tucson as the moment Obama stopped governing the country and started leading it.

People like the president. But there's still a question about whether the broadest part of the electorate has confidence that he's getting the job done. Speeches won't help him with that anymore.

After the "shellacking" Democrats took in the 2010 midterms, a consensus was forming that Obama needed to hit a home run with his State of the Union to bolster his chances for 2012. But with polls showing Obama's favorability at 53 percent, his fortunes are already rising. Now all he really needs is a base hit to keep his streak going -- a State of the Union that's solid but unspectacular; that covers the subject but keeps it brief; that's sober but optimistic; that doesn't try to change people's lives, and merely seeks to reassure them that they're in capable hands.

At Tuesday's State of the Union, Obama needs another good performance -- but not a great one.

This State of the Union will succeed if he does five things to convince voters that he is focused on what matters most to them:

Keep It Short

The president will be competing for eyeballs with college basketball and reruns of Two and a Half Men. With round-the-clock political coverage going on three cable networks and kids to get to school in the morning, folks don't have all night to hear what Obama has to say. If he can't cover everything in a half hour, he's saying too much.

Don't Make a List

Obama has racked up a lot of wins so far: The stimulus, Race to the Top, Lilly Ledbetter, Wall Street reform and New START all prove that he knows how to push laws through Congress. But if anything's been shown in the last two years, it's that voters aren't impressed by lists of legislative victories. Obama should resist the urge to recap all the laws he's passed.