WASHINGTON, D.C. — When President Obama ventures to Capitol Hill tonight to deliver his first address to Congress, much will be at stake as he seeks to clarify his economic policies, calm shaky financial markets and add momentum to a policy agenda that has been met with resistance by Congressional Republicans.
“It is a crucial speech,” said Brian Atwood, dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. “It sets the tone for his first year, if not the whole term.”
In addition to talking specifics about the road ahead, the president will have an opportunity to promote investment in health care, energy and education reform as a permanent way to boost the economy in his state-of-the-union-like speech, which will be watched by millions in the United States and abroad. It comes a week after Obama signed his massive economic recovery package into law.
In a just a month, Obama’s presidency has been marked by significant highs and noticeable lows: a slew of legislative successes, early diplomatic maneuvering, and soaring approval ratings mixed with Cabinet blunders, a Republican revolt in Congress, and plunging markets following Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s unveiling of the revised financial-sector rescue plan.
Obama’s address, at 8 p.m. Twin Cities time, comes days before he will present his 2010 budget outline to Congress and detail his goal of cutting the estimated $1.2 trillion deficit at least in half by the end of his term.
Nation paying attention
“In circumstances of crisis, people do pay more attention to what the president has to say,” said Alexander Keyssar, a professor of history and social policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “To the extent that he can affect public opinion, he can also influence members of Congress. If members of Congress read that this speech gets a 73 percent approval rating, [their reaction may be] quite different than if it gets 25 percent.”
According to Atwood, the tone of the speech will be critical.
“He has to do something very akin to what Roosevelt did when he said, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,’ ” Atwood said. “He has to acknowledge the difficult situation that we are in, but offer hope at the same time.
“Of course,” Atwood added, “he is going to have to back it up with very specific plans.”
Minnesota’s representatives, most having just returned to Washington after a week spent in their districts, said that questions abounded over the specifics of the stimulus and bailout plans.
“I hope he [Obama] hits on the things that people are talking about,” said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn. “They want a sense that there is a plan. They want confidence again.”
While traveling through his district in southern Minnesota, Walz said that he continually heard questions about the U.S. banks.
“They wanted to know, and not in talking points, what does it mean if the government takes over control of the banks?” said Walz. “What does nationalization mean?”
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said that her constituents had concerns over the amount of spending in the stimulus plan.
“They are very nervous about all the spending that’s going on,” said Bachmann. “They want to know how it’s going to be paid for.”
While large majorities of Americans support the $787 billion stimulus and the $75 billion plan to decrease mortgage foreclosures, deeper partisan rifts are emerging, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
None of the Republicans in the House and only three Republicans in the Senate voted in favor of the stimulus package.
Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., said that he would like to see Obama readdress bipartisanship in his speech from the House floor tonight. Kline said that it might help pave the way for the $410 billion “omnibus” spending bill that the House plans to vote on this week.
“I think that the tone is going to be very important,” said Kline. “It needs to be a bipartisan tone. It needs to be a positive tone — we are going to work together, we are going to move forward — but it needs to be pointed… it’s not enough to do as we did in the stimulus bill where we had one party write it and then say, ‘OK, the other party can try to amend it.'”
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has talked of refusing to accept some of the money in the stimulus package, will be giving the Republican response after Obama’s speech tonight.
Of course, not everybody agrees on exactly what the most appropriate tone should be. Walz suggested that while Obama needs to be very understanding and empathetic he also hopes that the president “is a little defiant in the face of some of this criticism.”
In the end, tonight’s speech will be nothing if not a high wire balancing act for the new president — focusing on domestic issues while acknowledging work abroad, trying to speak frankly and specifically about the economy without triggering a market dive, and attempting to appeal to both the nation’s Democrats and Republicans as Congress begins work on even more spending and bailout measures.
Or, to use another analogy, provided by Atwood:
“He will have to show that the administration is, in fact, walking and chewing gum at the same time.”
Cynthia Dizikes covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on issues and developments in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at cdizikes[at]minnpost[dot]com.