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The Bipartisan Walk and Talk
By almost any measure, the stimulus bill was not a bipartisan success. Only three Republicans backed the bill in the Senate, and none did in the House. While there is debate over why this occurred, there is no doubt that Obama has scored big with his very public gestures aimed at bringing Republicans into the conversation. A new poll by the New York Times and CBS News found that 74% of Americans think Obama is "trying to work with Republicans in Congress." By contrast, only 31% of Americans think Republicans in Congress are "trying to work with Barack Obama." If these numbers keep up, they could spell an electoral disaster for Republicans in 2010.
As it stands, nods to bipartisanship, which Americans have long supported, is a clear winner for Obama, so expect to see more of it in the speech. With Democratic control in the House and Senate, Obama has the ability to set the terms of the bipartisan discussion. He wins by talking about the need for bipartisanship yet he has enough votes in Congress to largely determine when too much bipartisanship would hurt his agenda. "On the one hand, the majority has to be inclusive," he explained on Monday, during an afternoon discussion with lawmakers. "On the other hand, the minority has to be constructive."
The State of the Wars
During his first month in office, the domestic economy dominated the agenda such that Obama mostly avoided discussing the still troubling national-security situation. He announced the dispatch of 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan by press release. He has avoided any direct comment on the continued concern that Iran is close to developing its first nuclear weapon. The war in Iraq, which has thus far claimed the lives of 13 soldiers in February, has been put under review but the President has resisted specific comments about plans to withdraw troops. Meanwhile, the military has continued some would argue increased regular remote-control missile attacks on suspected terrorists in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan with only minimal comment from the White House. (See pictures of the battle against the Taliban.)
While much of this ambiguity is likely to remain after Tuesday's speech, Obama will be obligated to explain how he views the ongoing international violence and shifting threats. Expect the President to combine a continued determination for victory against terrorist threats with a cautious explanation of the difficult challenges ahead. President Bush did himself great political harm by repeatedly offering rosy projections about the war in Iraq that later proved to be unfounded. Obama, who inherited Bush's military engagements, is not likely to repeat that mistake.
The Resisting of Cassandra Creep
For weeks, Obama has reminded the nation of the fix it's in. He has spoken of the risk of downward "spiral," deepening "crises," potential economic "catastrophe" and the "big challenge" ahead. At the time, such language served a political purpose: to direct public pressure toward Congress to pass the stimulus, while making clear that the problems were inherited. But too much grim talk runs the risk of becoming self-fulfilling. As White House economists will explain, the worst fears of an economic spiral involve a self-perpetuating collapse in consumer confidence that leads to a deflationary spiral: people spend less, so people have less to spend.
Obama now finds himself in the delicate position of having to speak candidly to the American people about the current problems which, at least with the banking sector, appear to be getting even worse without aggravating those problems by lowering the national mood further. President Clinton recently explained the balance in an interview with ABC News. "I like trying to educate the American people about the dimensions and scope of this economic crisis," Clinton said. "I just would end by saying that he is hopeful and completely convinced we're going to come through this." Obama will almost certainly demonstrate that sentiment on Tuesday night, if for no other reason than it is what every President in modern memory has done when addressing a joint session of Congress reflect upon the current challenges, while promising that America's greatest days lie ahead.