In any given week, the President of the United States will give maybe half a dozen speeches and make public remarks at twice as many events. But often the words that history remembers are delivered only once a year, usually in January or February, when the President travels the length of Pennsylvania Avenue to address a joint session of Congress. This is the moment when the President gets to set out the broad sweep of his plans, propose benchmarks for success and establish the tenor of his Administration.
It was before a joint session that John F. Kennedy announced in 1961 his plan to land a man on the moon "before this decade is out." "The era of big government is over," Bill Clinton declared before a joint session in 1996. In 2002 George W. Bush used his address before Congress to denounce the "axis of evil, arming to threaten peace in the world"; his foreign policy vision will forever define his legacy. (See George W. Bush's 10 best YouTube moments.)
On Tuesday night, Barack Obama will get a chance to follow in those footsteps. For weeks, the President's staff has been writing and revising his speech, which is likely to be the most comprehensive statement of Obama's vision for the nation since the Inauguration. So what will he say? (See pictures of how Obama prepared his Inauguration speech.)
Officially, the White House is keeping the speech under wraps, with spokesman Robert Gibbs saying repeatedly that he is not going to "get ahead" of the President. But there is, in many ways, little left to hide, since Obama has spent much of the past few weeks making clear both his legislative goals and his strategy for accomplishing them. So as you settle in tonight to watch the prolonged legislative applause, realizing that, like 25 million Americans, you will be denied your Tuesday night American Idol fix, here are five things to look for.
If there is one thematic frame that has infused almost every action of the early Obama Administration, it has been this: Obama is no George W. Bush. He won't interrogate prisoners like Bush. He won't operate Guantánamo Bay like Bush. He won't accept lobbyists into his Administration like Bush. He will court the opposition party much more seriously than Bush did. He is unlikely to even keep the Bush request for a new helicopter to transport the President around the Washington D.C. region. "The helicopter I now have seems perfectly adequate to me," Obama says.
When it comes to the week ahead, Obama is likely to focus his anti-Bush message on the rather technical subject of budget gimmickry. Obama previewed this line of reasoning on Monday, when he kicked off a fiscal summit at the White House. "For too long, our budget process in Washington has been an exercise in deception," Obama announced. "We do ourselves no favors by hiding the truth about what we spend." In specific terms, this means accounting for expenses like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as natural disasters as part of the normal budget process. But the bigger point is to differentiate Obama, who remains quite popular, from Bush, who remains quite unpopular. The move allows Obama to re-emphasize that he has not been in office long enough to be held responsible for the dizzying array of crises that the nation now faces.
The Stimulus Trojan Horse
During the debate over the $787 billion stimulus package, Obama made no secret of his goal. "We're going to have to jump-start this economy," he said over and again in different variations. The goal was to get the economy moving, and the method was to create jobs. As lawmakers haggled over the bill, Obama only rarely mentioned the ancillary policy benefits of the largest single federal spending effort in the nation's history. Last week in Denver, when he signed the bill, Obama changed his tune. What was once a jobs program suddenly became a policy triumph.
He ticked off the accomplishments: "The largest new investment in our nation's infrastructure since Eisenhower built an interstate highway system in the 1950s," he said. "The largest investment in education in our nation's history," he continued. "The most meaningful steps in years towards modernizing our health-care system," he went on. "A big step down the road to energy independence," he announced. "The biggest increase in basic research funding in the long history of America's noble endeavor to better understand the world," he concluded. Look for lots of this sort of boasting in Obama's speech before Congress. And when Obama mentions these programs, look to see which politicians in the audience stand to applaud. Republicans, who hate policy goals that require federal spending, are likely to sit on their hands, while Democrats rejoice. Finally, expect Obama to talk about the need to continue these sorts of policy initiatives, outlining his priorities for reforming energy, health care and education, as well as the need to simultaneously pare back the long-term deficit.