One Speech, Three Audiences

BY Gwen Ifill  January 27, 2010 at 6:13 PM EDT

This will not be the first time that we have seen an address delivered by President Obama described as the most critical speech of his campaign/presidency/life.

But this State of the Union address may actually deserve that title, if only because of the number of audiences the president must speak to tonight.

As always happens prior to any president’s big speech to a joint session of Congress, senior administration officials began leaking bits and pieces of content days in advance, hoping to shape news and opinion coverage. If you stood outside the Northwest gate at the White House Wednesday morning, as I did, you would have been able to witness a steady stream of the nation’s most notable columnists, pundits, anchor men and women, and White House reporters heading into the West Wing for a series of briefings with senior administration officials and even the president himself.

This routine is not unique to the Obama administration. Every president does it. What’s different this time is that Mr. Obama is trying to do a number of things at once. By their own admission, White House officials say he is trying to demonstrate consistency of principle, while admitting mistakes and intimidating opponents.

“Everybody in hard times has to make choices. You have to prioritize,” White House senior advisor David Axelrod said Wednesday on the NewsHour. “One of the messages the president is going to deliver tonight is that we all have a responsibility to govern….It should be all hands on deck.”

“I think the president’s view,” he continued,” is the most important thing he can do is tackle the problems in this country in an honest and forthright way.

To do this, Mr. Obama is speaking to three audiences during his State of the Union Speech — the right, the left, and the vast middle. Each group wants to hear different things.

The Right

Mr. Obama is least likely to satisfy the agitators on the farthest ends of that spectrum. The most conservative members of Congress, as well as the loosely organized protesters who have dubbed themselves the Tea Party Movement, want to hear about less government involvement, deeper tax cuts, and an end to big government solutions. In the eyes of the loyal opposition, like House minority leader John Boehner, minority whip Eric Cantor, and Sen. Mitch McConnell, there is very little the president can say to make them stand up and applaud tonight.

The Left

Just as unhappy are Obama supporters on the left, who insist he has squandered opportunities to force their priorities. Whether it is the political decision to step away from the health care public option or the White House desire to de-emphasize divisive issues such as gay marriage and immigration, liberals have urged the president to draw a line in the sand and ignore the right.

The Vast Middle

This is the sweet spot the president is aiming for tonight by emphasizing job creation, deficit reduction, and middle class anxieties like education and housing. Health care, White House officials say, should be considered part of that agenda, but not all of it. “Seven presidents have tried” to fix health care “and seven presidents have failed for a reason,” one official said. “The president did not undertake this thinking he would have petals strewn in his path on the way to the signing ceremony.”

White House officials no longer bother to conceal their bitterness at a Republican opposition that has stymied them legislatively while fueling upsets like Scott Brown’s surprise Senate win last week in Massachusetts. And while they insist tonight’s speech will be no course correction, they remain aware that the president’s poll numbers are heading the wrong way.

Tonight’s speech is a key part of their political rescue mission. “We won’t allow the next 10 months to become a referendum on Barack Obama,” a senior official said. “Everyone will be held responsible.”

Updated Jan. 28, 2010