State of the Union: What Do You Want Obama to Say?

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As America braces for an address that tends to be uneventful, here's what Washington's major constituencies would like Obama to talk about.

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What is the point of the State of the Union?

The president's annual address to Congress tends to be a laundry list of policy priorities that fails to make much of a splash either inside the Capitol or with the broader public. His opponents are only listening to find things to take issue with, and his allies are mostly just hoping he tosses a mention to their pet causes.

President Obama lays out his second-term vision for America. See full coverage

This year's State of the Union isn't likely to be a grandly ideological call to action -- President Obama already accomplished that with his inaugural address last month. Nor is it likely to be the occasion for a radical reorientation of his presidency. The White House appears to believe things are going well for Obama right now, with Republicans on the ropes and action under way on a slew of priorities. Spoiler alert: Obama is overwhelmingly likely to announce that the state of the Union is strong.

Nonetheless, we will be listening for clues to the path forward. I surveyed a few activists of varying perspectives to find out what they were hoping to hear from Obama on Tuesday. Was there anything he could say that would please the right, for example? (Not really -- the conservatives I surveyed said they wouldn't be satisfied unless Obama had a total change of heart and began embracing right-wing positions, which seems unlikely.) Would the left be looking for any specific commitments? (They're happy these days, but wouldn't mind a shout-out for campaign-finance reform, they say.)

Here is how the political world is setting its expectations for Obama's speech tonight.

The Tea Partier
"The thing that will continue to hold us back is the uncertainty Washington causes when it creates crisis after crisis after crisis, which makes it difficult for business owners and families to know how to plan for the future. Job creators and entrepreneurs, who could lift the economy from the dismal stagnation that we have experienced over the last four years, are instead fearful of being punished by the president for being successful and creating jobs and uncertain whether or not they should invest in growing their businesses. We want this president to say he will change course, acknowledge the government has an overspending problem, balance the budget in five years without raising taxes, and see him reject the "new normal" of high unemployment, economic malaise, lower standards of living, and less hope that has characterized his first four years."
--Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder and national coordinator, Tea Party Patriots

The Left Winger
"The president should make clear that while he supports cost-cutting reforms like letting Medicare negotiate drug prices, he is 100-percent opposed to cutting our grandparents' Social Security and Medicare benefits .... He should also make the case for how government can help people's lives -- including major government investment in jobs and passage of an assault weapons ban and background checks to prevent more killings. If he really wanted to thrill progressives, he'd vow to support public financing of congressional campaigns and a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United -- but I'm not expecting that much awesomeness."
--Adam Green, co-founder, Progressive Change Campaign Committee

The Centrist
"Tell the truth. Neither party is completely up front about the challenges we face in the years ahead and our fiscal predicament. Without casting blame, be straight about the deficit. Part of the job of the president is to talk about hard things. Real leadership is about embracing the unpopular things we need to do, and that's what the president needs to do: Be frank and make it clear it's going to require shared sacrifice .... The inaugural was a base speech to the president's political constituency. I'd like to see the State of the Union be a broader speech to the entire country."
--Mark McKinnon, co-founder, No Labels

The Pro-Lifer
"The March for Life Education and Defense Fund continues to hope and pray that the president will have a change of heart on abortion and its impact on women. We know that abortion takes the life of one and wounds another; abortion is not good for women and the president should say so. We sincerely hope that the president will use his State of the Union address and second term to promote and protect the dignity of all Americans, from conception to natural death."
--Jeanne Monahan, president, March for Life Education and Defense Fund

The Environmentalist
"The Sierra Club was very grateful to hear President Obama prioritize climate disruption in his inaugural address. Our two million members and supporters will now want to hear him say that he will take immediate action to address this crisis that many of our younger members in particular see as the greatest challenge of their generation."
-- Michael Brune, executive director, Sierra Club

The Fiscal Conservative
"We would like the president to acknowledge that he is aware of the unintended consequences that have resulted from passage of the Affordable Care Act. Higher health-care premium costs and an unwillingness to grow by small businesses are all but undisputed. It also appears that millions of Americans won't be 'keeping our own doctors and healthcare coverage' as many more employers are predicted to drop coverage. It would be healthy to recognize these facts."
-- Ken Hoagland, chairman, Restore America's Voice Foundation

The Immigration Reformer
"We would like the president to press for swift action in Congress and to make a strong endorsement of a clear and straightforward path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants already settled in America. With some Republicans seeking to establish a group of permanent second-class non-citizens, it would be helpful if he could remind the nation and the Congress of the dangers of establishing 'lesser Americans' by legislative decree."
-- Frank Sharry, executive director, America's Voice

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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