(The Root) — After President Barack Obama delivered a second inaugural address that included — in less than 20 minutes — five references to faith and God, four to risk taking and free enterprise, four to the Declaration of Independence and only one each to "Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security," the pundits summarily proclaimed that the president had served up … a frothing liberal manifesto.
But in reality, as The Root's Lawrence Bobo wrote, the speech was a barely controversial, middle-of-the-road "velvet glove" attempt to strike a bipartisan chord of "American can-do optimism." So much for the expectations game.
And leading up to Tuesday's State of the Union address, the first of his second term, Obama has already been upstaged by the pope's just-announced abdication; Ted Nugent's planned appearance in the House gallery as a guest of Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas); and the news that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — who's a week out from being named the GOP's "savior" on the cover of Time magazine — will give the Republican response in both English and Spanish.
So, with observers taking creative license with Obama's inaugural and reading into it either a (take your pick) liberal/conservative, bold/combative defense of/imposition of progressive aims rather than the calibrated political speech that it was, Team Obama ought to take a lesson for the State of the Union and scrap any plans to set a broader tone — and focus on hitting the highlights of its short-to-medium-term agenda:
The Hill found that only 36 percent of voters even know what "sequestration" — roughly defined as a seizure of assets — is. But over the next few weeks, they'll see the White House and Congress point fingers at each other over who's to blame if, on March 1, a 2011 sequestration package of discretionary spending cuts takes effect. The SOTU is the president's last chance to offer his side of the story while he has the nation's undivided attention before a smorgasbord of painful federal cuts kicks in.
With one poll showing his popularity among Latino voters at 70 percent, it's in Obama's interest to press that advantage in the State of the Union and convey the message that on immigration, he has the interests of the Latino constituency at heart.
Despite December's massacre in Newtown, Conn., and the January murder of Chicago teen Hadiya Pendleton — whose parents will also attend the State of the Union — congressional will to pass gun control legislation is already evaporating. So Obama should take the opportunity in his address to accentuate the universal background checks that are most likely to become law, and then he should move on — because the gun fight is one that a future president will have to win.
And after he's done with his to-do list, if there's a SOTU "don't" for Obama, it's on drone warfare. Because even with renewed inside-the-Beltway controversy over Obama's aggressive use of drones, 83 percent of the public approves of drone strikes against suspected terrorists. If he chooses, he can afford to leave that one alone.
Otherwise, Obama would be well-advised to go easy on pronouncements about infrastructure spending or new education initiatives. Because until he can wrangle a basic budget deal with Congress, most Americans won't have much faith that he can deliver school reform or light rail.
After Tuesday, Obama will still have three more tries for a more expansive State of the Union. But this time, instead of a stem-winder or a laundry list, he needs an immediate game plan.
He needs to set out what he plans to do. And do it.
David Swerdlick is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.