President Obama’s first State of the Union is tonight (last February’s speech to a joint session of Congress technically wasn’t a SOTU). Coming amid a stinging special election loss and with the opinion polls all moving against the president, the speech will probably be one part pivot and one part hunker-down. But how much of each?
For all the attention the Massachusetts election has gotten, the Democrats (counting Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman) still have 59 senators and a large majority in the House. Normally, that would be plenty of votes to pass a Democratic president’s agenda — George Bush didn’t exactly face gridlock despite having smaller majorities in Congress during his administration.
But Obama’s agenda is different, because he ratcheted up the ambition and rhetoric to match his super-majority. The 60 Senate seats may have been a curse in disguise: Now that the super-majority is gone, he can’t meet the expectations that he set — but he also can’t dial things back too much without ticking off his base, which still thinks it’s entitled to uber-liberalism.
So, can Obama say anything tonight that would convince moderates, much less conservatives, that he’s changed his tune? My guess is that he will offer the same sort of nice-sounding but ultimately empty gestures that he gave in his September speech to Congress on health care.
And no one will be fooled.