What Obama Should Say to Congress Tonight

How about looking the GOP in the eye and saying, “Don’t like me? I don’t like you, either.”

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President Barack Obama greets legislators before he delivers his State of the Union speech before a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, Feb. 12, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For President Obama, questions before the State of the Union abound about what, exactly, a State of the Union is supposed to be: halftime locker-room speech or the loser’s postgame press conference. 

What we do know is that the yearly exercise now known more as #SOTU (because it’s easier like that) is a window into political wack-ness. It is as exciting and wasteful as the NFL’s Pro Bowl. The amount of preparation into its preview, analysis, presupposition and immediate post-mortem is as nauseating as the spin on a rusty roundabout in the local park. We’ve made an almost red-carpet-outside-the-Grammys display out of a stale Constitutional obligation. That as many households watch it—33.5 million viewers in 2013—is no testament to its appeal. It is the result of television tube-feeding.

This year the speech is one of the many exhibition matches before a main electoral event. Pundits must gauge what it means for upcoming midterms. Democrats, obviously, want a fiery partisan speech showcasing a clothes line of executive actions, which the president won’t oblige. E.J. Dionne dreams of it “influenc[ing] the next decade of American political life.” Republicans, clearly, want partisan Obama so they can report back in to AM talk-radio shows and say, “we told you so.” George Will is certain that Obama will “concentrate on inequality as a way of changing the subject from his inconvenient triumph, the Affordable Care Act.”

This really doesn’t help anybody. SOTU promises made are rarely SOTU promises kept.

Each year we naively wish for an Al Pacino pregame speech, Morgan Freeman as leader of the free world rebuilding a nation, Michael Douglas as commander in chief losing it or Jeff Bridges as president blowing up Congress’ spot in The Contender. And, sure, it would be nice to see a bit of the latter two from a president whom Slate’s John Dickerson recently described as the “Inaction Hero.”

But there’s nothing wrong with dreaming. Thus, five things (among many) I wish the president would say or do in a moment of departure from the SOTU script, minus profane tirades or a town hall walkabout:

1. The unemployment rate is not the real unemployment rate—and we should really do something about that. That nothing has been done about the 1.4 million and counting who’ve lost long-term unemployment benefits is about lawmakers believing that the unemployment situation is not all that bad. It’s only a little less than 7 percent right now. But, no, it’s not: That’s the official what-the-public-can-stomach rate. The real rate is a combination of folks who have either dropped out of the labor force altogether or who don’t make nearly what they made pre-recession. That rate hovers at a quarter of the population. It would be nice for someone in power to clarify that so we can get on with the business of rectifying it.

2. Oh, and by the way, what the hell is going on with unemployment benefits, Congress? Not that we should expect much from a guy who only devoted less than a minute out of an hourlong press conference on the subject and then tiredly skipped out for a Hawaii vacation on the eve of unemployment-benefits expiration. But he’s been trying to make up lost ground on that ever since Democrats and Republicans had a nice, happy holiday refresh with gifts and buffets that jobless folks couldn’t afford. Still, it would be great if he’d look up from prepared copy on that topic, maybe bust a tear (or two) and point to a group of homeless, unemployed families he invites into the House chamber to publicly shame Congress into action. 

3. Hey, colleges: We’re coming after you. There is just not enough pressure on the American higher-education system to rein in skyrocketing tuition rates. In fact, the more we talk about how unsustainably expensive a college education is, the worse is gets; it seems like every year, colleges raise the tuition just to spite understandably disgruntled poor, working and middle-class families. It's not like the president or Congress can actually dictate how much colleges charge, since it’s all free market, baby. But the president—who loves to tout how much he and Michelle struggled to pay off student loans—can set a fresh, new aggressive tone that utterly humiliates college presidents into rethinking this shady and parasitic business model. It wouldn’t hurt to also say something about how much Parent PLUS loans are crushing many families of color into making hard choices. And while he’s at it, he could completely reinvent our perceptions of education—and how we pay for it.

4. President to Congress: “I get it: You don’t like me. I don’t like you, either.” But, you know what? The American people—based on the latest polling numbers—don’t like either one of us. So, how’s about we set all that aside and get some stuff done? And maybe here’s where the president does something unprecedented but very with-the-times and rolls out a PowerPoint of slides showing just how unproductive Congress has been these past several years—and have a huddle about what they can do to turn it around.