Program Note: Don't miss analysis by David Gergen and special coverage of the State of the Union Address tonight on CNN starting at 8 p.m. ET.
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David Gergen | BIO
CNN Senior Political Analyst
How often we have watched Barack Obama facing “the most important speech of his life” – Philadelphia, the Inaugural, Cairo, Afghanistan, etc., etc. Almost always he has risen to the occasion. But tonight’s State of the Union could require even more magic: for the first time he is delivering a message that looks virtually dead on arrival.
The past few days leading up to this speech have made clear that on his signature issues, the President is in deepening trouble:
Health Reform: Democratic leaders yesterday all but pronounced final rites over the mammoth health bill that has preoccupied Washington in recent months. The leaders said they wanted to postpone the fight for another day but everyone knows that with November elections looming, delay probably means death for universal coverage.
Cap and Trade: Legislative leaders have also made clear this week that prospects for a major cap and trade bill are finished for the year – another signature issue for Obama. Congress may pass some kind of energy bill but it will signal to the world that the U.S. isn’t yet on track to serious carbon reductions – and that in turn will place in further jeopardy the world-wide effort (China meanwhile has signaled that it may not even buy into the science of global warming.)
Job Creation: No one is quite sure what the President will propose tonight for new job measures, but CNN polls this week on the stimulus program of last year – showing that more than half of all Americans oppose it and three quarters believe that huge amounts have been wasted – show that he is running into stiff headwinds here, too. The House has passed a new $150 billion jobs bill but the Senate seems in little mood to match that. And the CBO has just projected that unemployment will remain stubbornly high for a long time to come.
Deficit Reduction: Concern about mountains of public debt are rising quickly among the public – that was one of the issues that Scott Brown rode to victory – and the President wants to use this speech tonight to convince people that he is a deficit hawk, too. But once again, the news of the past few days hasn’t been encouraging for the White House.
Tonight, for example, the President will propose a three-year freeze on domestic discretionary spending – that is, programs outside defense, homeland security, entitlements, etc. But Democrats are already pouncing on the freeze for giving up on campaign promises, and Republicans are deriding him for not being tough enough. And it is quickly dawning on the public that Obama wants to freeze spending for programs that have grown some 20 percent while he has been in office – hardly a bold step.
The deficit picture darkened further yesterday when the Senate rejected a bipartisan measure (supported by Obama and Brown) that would have set up a commission to force through long-term deficit reductions. When the President talks tonight about creating a commission on his own, everyone in Washington will know that it will be virtually toothless.
So, even before the President speaks tonight, it appears that serious deficit reduction will be almost impossible in Congress in this coming year. And the national debt will keep ballooning – by Associated Press estimates, the federal deficit this coming year will equal $4,500 for every American!
On four signature issues then – health care, cap and trade, jobs and deficits – the President’s agenda is in deep, deep trouble before he even steps to the podium tonight.
What must he do in his speech? This one is not just about the issues (though those are important). Nor is it simply whether the President moves to the center (I think he should).
Obama’s real challenge tonight is whether he can make Americans believe in him again. Millions are disappointed, others have turned against him. Can he persuade them tonight to give him a fresh chance? To sign up for a second round on his team? To rally behind him, thick or thin? That looks like the best –and perhaps the only – way he can revive a domestic agenda that, at best, is on life support.
Anderson Cooper goes beyond the headlines to tell stories from many points of view, so you can make up your own mind about the news. Tune in weeknights at 8 and 10 ET on CNN.
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