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Hope or humility: Obama's high wire act

Mark Mardell | 21:26 UK time, Wednesday, 27 January 2010

President Obama.jpg
President Obama was elected on such a wave of optimism and expectation that he can hardly have dreamt that his first State of the Union address would have to amount to a fightback speech.

It's his chance to "speak to America", as the phrase goes. But there are so many Americas, so many competing hopes and fears, that he has an awkward trick to pull off. All presidents, indeed all leaders in democracies have to speak to competing audiences. But it is particularly true for Obama, just over a year into his presidency.

He would want to boast of more success than he's had. The plan was to pass his flagship programme of healthcare reform by Christmas at the latest. Now its floundering in the doldrums, with no clear passage ahead.

He promised to close Guantanamo bay prison, his own dead line has come and gone, with one powerful commission recommending that some prisoners should be held indefinitely without trial.

His party has lost all the serious electoral races this year, two in supposedly safe seats.

But nothing matters more than the way Americans feel about their own prosperity and his handling of the economy.

The administrating says it has saved or created up to 2m jobs. But unemployment is around 10% rather than the promised 8%. The fall in his popularity has been swift: matching the fall in Ronald Reagan's ratings to an eerie degree of exactness.

Barack Obama won't mind if his ratings also match Ronnie's in the third and fourth years. The economy is all, but he can't afford to lose the trust of the nation in the meantime.

So these are the main balancing acts for the man on the tightrope.

Hope v Humility
The president probably has to sound regretful that things aren't better and perhaps admit to a few mistakes. But not to too many. He has to show a degree of humility and understanding of the anger that exists, without seriously accepting the blame. That would undermine the sense that he is still the embodiment and executor of the people's hopes.

Swingers v the base
The president has both disappointed some core supporters and some swing voters, the first for abandoning liberal principles, the second for cleaving to them.

Activists feel he's let them down on Afghanistan, health care and gays in the military. When activists stop being active and become mere supporters, it drains the life out of campaigns. You can bet if activists become mere voters, more luke warm supporters stay at home.

But those in the middle, swing voters, matter even more, and some voted for President Obama because he promised to bring a new, less partisan spirit to Washington. He has to square the circle.

Care v scare
The president has stressed how important it is for the economy and for the security of many Americans to reform the healthcare system. He can hardly back away from this central promise, a dream of liberals in the USA for a century.

Yet there is no doubt it has become politically toxic. Some fear big government. My hunch is many, many more are just confused about what the competing plans mean for their bank balance. Another circle to square.

Rhetoric v reality
People want a stronger economy, and more jobs. The president can promise to do more, try harder. But there's a danger in making more promises that look like pie in some distant future sky. If the promises are grounded in real measures, they will cost money. That will further worry those who feel cash has been thrown at the problem to no avail, increasing a huge deficit.

If the president's speech sounds like a laundry list, it will have failed, and he is not one to make that sort of mistake.

The tone, possibly a single sound bite, will be more important. I am not the only one who'll be counting the number of times he says "fight" and "people". But in the end, the measures he announces to deal with the state of the economy will determine his fate more than rhetoric.

When the speech begins, I will be live blogging.

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