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.
Third, a conversation about change. As is obvious to anyone, and as is detailed by the fascinating ebook by McAfee and Brynjolfsson, The Race Against the Machine, we are in the middle of a huge, long-term period of enormous dislocating technological change, and that’s only one aspect of the change we are going to see. The American people need this president to tell them this and to say clearly this change will fundamentally alter many of the givens of jobs, work, companies, education, etc.
Fourth, an outline of a practical vision. The impending change is real, but so is America’s immense capacity for innovation and reinvention. The president can show how down-to-earth, sensible policies will put the country on the right side of this change.
I haven’t mentioned the omnipresent issues of budgets, deficits, and debt. These issues have to be resolved if we want to establish a strong basis for the economy of the future and if we want to make this economy safer. These issues should be put in this economic context. Resolving them will require movement from both Democrats and Republicans. There is no movement today. In this speech, President Obama should make a thoughtful and genuine proposal to break today’s complete deadlock.
The probability of this second speech being given is well below 10 percent. But the president would be better off if he gave it and if he established a different kind of context for that portion of his second term that really matters. This is a use-it-or lose it moment; this is what second terms are about.
Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.