Obama's State of the Union must present him as a bold leader.

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 01/26/2010
With working families across America in an uproar over the endless nightmare of job losses--with key voting blocks in once Democratic strongholds clamoring after any scrap of decisiveness in recent elections--with the Twittering classes crying out for boldness from the man elected on the promise of once-in-a-lifetime "change"--in the midst of all this, President Obama plans to use his State of the Union address to unfold a series of small-bore middle class tax credits and federal spending cuts. 

It's the bottom of the first inning--nobody on, nobody out--and the White House is sending out its biggest hitter to bunt his way onto first base.
If I had one message for the President heading into his speech, tomorrow night, it would be this: Swing for the fences, Mr. President!

Despite what the President's advisers maybe telling him about this or that poll showing movement or persuadability in this or the other right or left leaning Congressional constituency--the problem Barack Obama must overcome in his State of the Union is the perception in the eyes of the public that he is a weak leader. 

How did it happen?  Who cares.  There is no crying in baseball.  The only road out of a hitting slump is to swing away.  And Obama is in the mother of all slumps.

Whatever speech the President has on his desk right now, he needs to look over every page and make sure there is no bunting anywhere in it on it or near it.

Swing hard, Mr. President.  Swing for the fences.  Now is the time to hit away. 

Early on in the President's first year, Rush Limbaugh hoped that the President would fail.  If tomorrow night's State of the Union speech is timid or filled with overly technical tax incentive tinkering, then Limbaugh will have won and the home team will have lost.

Right now, every working man and woman in America has one thing and one thing only on their mind:  jobs.  Will I keep my job? Will I lose my job? Will I get my job back? What will I do if I go another year without a job?

Bold presidential leadership in the State of the Union speech must make sense in the context of this anxiety-filled national conversation--this endless, fretful, but proud conversation.  To be seen and heard as a strong leader, the President's words must not only make sense to, but also resonate with Americans worried about work.

In a recession and a crisis of leadership far worse than the one we are currently witnessing, newly elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented the country with a simple, bold message when he delivered his first State of the Union Address in January of 1934

A year earlier, Roosevelt had told the country that the banks were too greedy and too fearful to lend Americans the money they needed to put people back to work, and yet there were plenty of resources and workers ready to get started.  In his State of the Union, he followed up that same, bold theme:
Without regard to party, the overwhelming majority of our people seek a greater opportunity for humanity to prosper and find happiness. They recognize that human welfare has not increased and does not increase through mere materialism and luxury, but that it does progress through integrity, unselfishness, responsibility and justice.
Work was the key to a American progress, Roosevelt explained.  Progress through integrity. Progress through unselfishness. Progress through responsibility. Progress through justice.

Beyond the general refrain of progress, FDR specified exactly how his first year in office created and improved job prospects for millions of Americans:
We have made great strides toward the objectives of the National Industrial Recovery Act, for not only have several millions of our unemployed been restored to work, but industry is organizing itself with a greater understanding that reasonable profits can be earned while at the same time protection can be assured to guarantee to labor adequate pay and proper conditions of work. Child labor is abolished. Uniform standards of hours and wages apply today to 95 percent of industrial employment within the field of the National Industrial Recovery Act. We seek the definite end of preventing combinations in furtherance of monopoly and in restraint of trade, while at the same time we seek to prevent ruinous rivalries within industrial groups which in many cases resemble the gang wars of the underworld and in which the real victim in every case is the public itself.
Progress through abolishing child labor. Progress through guaranteed adequate pay.  Progress through preventing monopoly.  Progress through millions of people back to work.

After one year of trying everything that was pragmatically possible to get people back to work--succeeding at some, failing at others--FDR stood up and in front of Congress and swung for the fences. 

Fast forward to the next great economic crisis and the current President must find a similar bold theme again. 

To those say that it is too late for "pretty words"--that substantive policy is all that matters now--Obama should calmly, but decisively ignore them.  There is no question that a bold vision should be backed up by solid proposals to put people back to work--but that does not mean the President should cede the sphere of public opinion and burn the midnight oil at a policy desk.  It means he should speak even bolder, fight even harder.

Bold leadership for a President must transpire in the public arena.  Should he bunt at the dais, it matters little if a President swings for the fences back stage, on Air Force One, or in a room full of experts gathered in the Oval Office.  What the people see and hear is what makes for Presidential leadership.

And what we need to hear is what the President means by progress.  How are we going to lift ourselves out of the self-doubt and fear of unemployment and into a productive future of integrity, unselfishness, responsibility, and justice?

The answer is not by "tax credits" nor any other kind of accounting rhetoric, but by putting people back to work.  The future the President must describe, tomorrow night--a future that gives logic and reason to all his substantive proposals--must be one where every American who wants to can and will get back to work. 

Tax credits for middle class families and cutting back on special interest waste are both good things.  But in a State of the Union Speech at a time of national concern over jobs, they are minor league proposals.

The timeless story of an America standing tall because we are working again--that is the home run Obama should aim to hit.

Swing for the fences, Mr. President!  Hit away.
© Jeffrey Feldman 2010, Frameshop

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