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What Obama Should Say

Monday, January 24, 2011 - 09:40 PM

No doubt, even a great speaker, like President Barack Obama, will be tinkering with his State of the Union speech up to the last minute. So, here is my humble advice in two words: Think Big.

No single speech can turn around the economy, create jobs or restore national confidence. President Obama must use this address to restore his vision of change and hope, and he must do it in just about an hour.

The "State of the Union" is exactly that — an address from our highest elected official about the state of our union. It derives from our Constitution (Article II, Section 3: "He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient).

Thus, the President not only reports on the condition of the nation but also outlines his legislative agenda and national priorities to Congress, which alone has the power to pass legislation.

Unfortunately for Barack Obama, and the rest of us, the news isn't good.  

Joblessness. The deficit. All fifty states in worse shape than Ireland with respect to their debt to GDP ratios. Record levels of poverty among families with wages. And that's just here at home.

Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran. Lebanon. Russia. China. North Korea. And that’s just the list off the top of my head. There’s a bigger list of smaller places that keep many a foreign policy expert awake nights.

Here’s the silver lining: a president, however great an orator, cannot be expected to solve all these problems in a single night, with a single speech. I learned in my days working on speeches in the West Wing, that the purpose of a single speech is to get at the Big Idea. You want to reach the hearts and minds of your audience. 

That is the case this year, more than ever, when the audience will be a nation of skeptical citizens, hungry for leadership. The President’s singular purpose, therefore, can only be to remind us of our united purpose in meeting the challenges we face as a nation.

This speech must recall FDR, Kennedy and King. It must seek to appeal to our sense of who we are as Americans on the macro-level, rather than to micro-manage the Congressional agenda. The purpose is to show Americans that the change they voted for in 2008 is already underway in 2010.

Keep it simple. Economic recovery, with specific examples in the chamber. Job creation, with recent surveys showing that U.S. companies plan to hire more workers in the coming months amid growing optimism over the economy. The end of combat operations in Iraq, only two months longer than promised during the campaign. Drawdown in Afghanistan, to begin July 2011. And yes, health care for all Americans, despite the Tea Party vow to try to repeal.

    President Obama needs to remind us that change has never come easily for Americans. From the choice to form a more perfect Union, to the fight to hold that Union together, rather than separate. From Reconstruction to the Great Depression, from the Civil Rights Movement to women's suffrage, change in America has hardly come overnight. It takes time. It comes with difficulty, determination and perseverance.

    The spirit that has sustained this nation for more than two centuries lives on in our people. The message for the President this year, therefore: We don't quit. We seize the moment. We walk the dream forward, to strengthen our Union once more.

    Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues.

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