Obama’s Challenge: Be Political, But Not Too Political

President Obama’s State of the Union address will be political in nature. But not too political.

At least, that’s the hope that’s been expressed by Obama’s own advisers.

Obama will seize the opportunity to make the case for his plans for the economy to some 50 million Americans who will be watching Tuesday.

But given the setting — an address to Congress, with members of the Cabinet and the Supreme Court present as well — it can’t be a purely partisan speech.

“Even though it’s an election year, I think the point the president is going to make tonight is, there’ll be plenty of time for politics, but let’s try to do the people’s business,” David Plouffe, a White House senior adviser, told NPR’s Renee Montagne.

Obama is expected to lay out proposals he believes would create a level playing field, ensuring that the economy “lifts the middle class” and doesn’t just work for the wealthy, Plouffe said.

But the likelihood that Obama will renew his call for higher taxes on those earning top incomes means that the president’s program is not one that’s likely to earn immediate bipartisan acclaim.

On Fox News Sunday, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said it would be “pathetic” if the president talks again about familiar proposals such as “more spending, higher taxes, more regulation.”

But Obama will be laying out his own vision for the year ahead. And that includes the election season, says George C. Edwards III, an expert on the presidency at Texas A&M University.

“It does provide an opportunity for the president to advance a narrative of his presidency,” Edwards says. “At this point in the presidency, it’s a narrative for the election.”

Squeezing It All In

Setting the agenda and the terms of debate is “the primal act of politics,” Edwards says. That’s why State of the Union messages often run so long and can sometimes be less memorable than other presidential addresses.

“State of the Unions are really, really difficult speeches to write and to give,” says Marc Thiessen, who was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush. “It’s one of the most-watched speeches the president gives and at the same time it’s generally one of the worst speeches the president gives.”

The reason, Thiessen says, is that every agency in the executive branch wants the president to mention its initiatives, so that Congress will give it serious attention as top priorities for the White House.

That’s why the main thematic points of a State of the Union address often get bogged down with recitations of a wide range of specific proposals.

“You develop a lot of policies that will be in the budget and proposed,” Gene Sperling, director of the president’s National Economic Council, said in a video about the crafting of the speech that was released by the White House on Tuesday. “And in a sense, the ones that make the State of the Union are a little bit like the ones that make the all-star team.”

Energy And Commerce

The White House has signaled that Tuesday’s speech will highlight programs that would achieve the goals Obama laid out in a speech on the economy that he delivered in Kansas last month.

Obama will put an emphasis on worker training and education, as well as boosting manufacturing by “giving tax incentives to companies that create jobs here in the United States,” says Tara McGuinness, a spokeswoman for the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank.

Obama also won’t shy from touting the importance of clean energy, she says, despite lingering controversy over government subsidies for Solyndra, a solar panel firm that went bankrupt last summer.

But the president will also tout his record on fossil-fuel production, seeking to stave off criticism from his decision last week to block a permit for an oil pipeline from Canada. Obama has already noted in campaign advertising that America now relies on foreign sources for less than 50 percent of its energy needs for the first time in 13 years.

He will also tout the country’s spike in natural gas production. But some Republicans and energy industry officials say that Obama is taking credit for successes that were not of his own making, since his administration has been comparatively stingy about allowing drilling on public lands and offshore.

A Face For The Buffett Rule

On a day when much of the news was dominated by the release of personal income tax returns by Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who is seeking the GOP presidential nomination, Obama will again call on rich Americans to pay a greater share of taxes.

Among the guests in first lady Michelle Obama’s box will be Debbie Bosanek, the secretary of billionaire investor Warren Buffett. Buffett has often said it’s unfair that he pays a lower effective tax rate on his investments than his secretary, who earns far less in wages.

As has become traditional, the president will refer to other honored guests in the first lady’s box who symbolize the effects of his policies. Among their number will be Adm. William McRaven, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command and, as such, the person who oversees the Navy SEAL team that killed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

Making The Political Case

Although the president may refer to that killing — as well as the ouster of longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and the end of America’s military presence in Iraq — the speech is likely to be largely concerned with domestic matters, the economy in particular.

At a time when Romney and the other Republican hopefuls are the focus of most of the political world’s attention, the State of the Union gives Obama the chance to seize the spotlight.

“It’s probably the one time of the year the president has the undivided attention of the country,” says Thiessen, the former Bush speechwriter, who is now a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Other than his convention speech, this is the one chance he has to have the undivided attention of the American people and make the case for his re-election.”

But, like other observers, Thiessen warns that Obama will not be successful if he gives a campaign speech devoid of proposals that could pass the Republican-controlled House.

‘It’s Always Been Partisan’

Obama’s State of the Union speeches have been notable for some contentious moments, as when South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson yelled “you lie!” as the president outlined his health care plan back in 2009, or when Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito mouthed “not true” to the president’s complaints about a 2010 decision that opened up the floodgates to political spending by corporations.

Last year’s speech was notable for the attempt by many members of Congress to avoid partisan rancor, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting of Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and several of her Tucson constituents. With Giffords attending Tuesday’s speech as one of her last official acts before resigning from Congress, there will again be hopes for an atmosphere of comity.

But that doesn’t mean Republicans will join Democrats in applauding all or even most of Obama’s ideas.

“It’s always been partisan,” says Edwards, the Texas A&M political scientist. “If you would randomly go back and look at the records of State of the Union messages, you would find many statements when the members of the president’s own party clapped and the other party sat still.”

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.