Show Us the Jobs: Obama's State of the Union Challenge

On Tuesday, January 25th, President Obama will give the annual state-of-the-union address to Congress and the American people. Since the disastrous midterm elections, Obama's popularity has surged. The president should use this opportunity to tell Americans his strategy for dealing with the US jobs crisis.

Article II, Section 3 of the US Constitution mandates the State-of-the-Union (SOTU) report. In recent years it's consisted of a glib assessment of the nation's condition -- last year Obama reported, "Our union is strong" -- and theaAdministration's legislative agenda, most often a laundry list that bears little resemblance to what that session of Congress accomplishes. Typically the SOTU speech is a snoozer, although in 2002 and 2003, President Bush used the occasion to marshal support for an attack on Iraq.

In last years' SOTU speech, President Obama argued that his administration had saved the US economy; he claimed the worst of the recession was over, but confessed the problem of creating jobs was daunting. He requested job-creation legislation much of which passed. He also asked for health care and financial reform legislation they became law. Nonetheless, the speech wasn't effective because the president came across as professorial.

Obama should view 2011's SOTU as an opportunity to win support for his job-creation agenda. In many ways the occasion mirrors the situation he was presented with on Wednesday, January 12th, at the Tucson memorial service for the shooting victims. He exceeded the nation's expectations by taking what could have been the occasion for a pro forma speech and instead giving a moving address that lifted up Americans and put the tragic events in perspective.

The Tucson speech succeeded because the president adopted a personal tone. He focused on the death of nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, observing that Christina saw the political process "through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted. I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us -- we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations."

President Obama should learn from his Tucson speech and make the SOTU address simple and personal. The president will be standing in front of the 112th session of Congress, where the House of Representatives is controlled by a raucous Republican majority. His speech could well set the tone of the next two years. Obama needs to take command of the bully pulpit.

After pro forma comments about the need for civility and recognition of our Armed Forces personnel, President Obama should make two points.

The first is that the actions of the Obama administration have stabilized the economy; they've kept banks from collapsing and economic conditions from going into free fall. The US is coming out of "the Great Recession" and that's good news that Obama and Democrats, in general, should take credit for. (The President would do well to give Americans a few concrete examples of how 2009's Recovery and Reinvestment Act has saved the jobs of average folks.)

The second point the president should make is that the US cannot be satisfied with this recovery because we are mired in a jobs slump, where the unemployment rate is 9.1 percent. That's what Obama should focus on for the remainder of his speech: US Gross Domestic Product is up; our corporate profits are up; but our unemployment rate lags behind those of Britain, China, Germany, Japan, and Russia. For most Americans the recession is over but there are 14.5 million workers who cannot find decent jobs.

While the president might want to suggest a few job-related legislative initiatives, what is paramount is that he establish a compelling theme such as Let's make America work for everyone and follow it with a forceful reiteration of a basic premise: Everyone in America who wants a job should be able to find one.

Obama should throw down the gauntlet and say to Congress We've stabilized the economy. Now we need to work together to create more jobs.

To make this point the president should use gripping examples, as he did in Tucson with the story of Christina Green. He should sprinkle his SOTU remarks with the stories of the unemployed. Whenever Obama proposes a specific job-creation initiative, he should amplify the content by showing how it would help a jobless American worker.

What the president doesn't say in the SOTU is as important as what he says. He shouldn't refer to the deficit or the "results" of his Deficit Reduction Commission. And Obama must avoid being professorial or garrulous. He should hammer on one theme: Washington needs to solve the jobs crisis. Americans will understand this and expect Congress to cooperate with Obama. It will both shift the burden of job-creation initiatives onto the Republican-controlled House and address America's number one problem.

President Obama should seize upon the 2011 State-of-the-Union address as a singular opportunity.