This is not the moment to give the same economic speech, but to be bold and long-term.
Inaugural addresses are about poetry and vision; State of the Union speeches are about prose and governing. (I acknowledge the inaccurate theft from Governor Mario Cuomo.) But they can and should be about more than a simple listing of policy and budgetary goodies, which is more often what they have become, or the inevitable, and politically necessary, announcement that the state of the union is “good.” President Obama should raise the level of the genre and his own game in Tuesday night’s speech. Because second-term presidencies are two real years rather than the Constitutional four years, the president has a lot at stake in making this his best State of the Union.
The president’s advisors have told the media that this speech will reflect a “pivot” back to the economy after the inaugural address’s focus, largely, on inequality. That would be very welcome. But he still has a choice.
He can give the standard, dull, plain-vanilla generic presidential speech about the economy. This would have three major themes: (1) The economy is not in good enough shape, but it’s getting better; (2) Everything my administration has done to date is the reason why the economy is getting better; and (3) Here is my list of actions we intend to take that will immediately make the economy even better. That last point invariably emphasizes job creation, immediate job creation, immediate American job creation, and immediate American good job creation. The generic speech always has a number of good things to say about infrastructure spending. This is all always said with the implicit assumption that the economy of tomorrow will be much the same as the economy of yesterday and today and that no one need worry too much about change. You have to remember that State of the Union speeches are drafted by political advisors and consultants who, across all political parties and all times, share two views about the American people: They go into catatonic states at the prospect of any change, and their time horizon is at most a couple of weeks. This speech would disappear without a trace.
Or he could decide to give a far better economic speech. It would have the following themes:
First, a discussion of long-run economic growth, not the next six months – which matter, but not as much as the long term.
Second, a focus on a particular kind of growth: long-term, equitable, and sustainable. I mention the “sustainable” point in particular because it is always part of any rhetorical flourish but mostly disregarded when the time comes to do anything.