Tuesday State of the Union: Substance or Theatrics?

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It seems to be a rule: the faker a Washington political press meme is, the more sciencey the concept's name must be. If pre-event buzz is to be believed, President Obama's State of the Union address will be all about "momentum" and "atmospherics" and "pivot"--not words to inspire much confidence.

The speech, which comes Tuesday night, will focus on Republican-friendly issues including tax reform, deficit reduction, and trade, The Hill's Sam Youngman reports, and will "mark the culmination of a transformation" of the president as centrist and pro-business. "Obama and his aides are clearly trying to seize on the momentum they're enjoying and what they feel is a strong State of the Union message," Youngman writes. Obama will tout recent improvement in the economy and call on both parties to work together to create more jobs. The president will also talk about the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Politico's Carol E. Lee reports, but "without the faintest whiff of partisan politics."

But what's the upshot in the show? Will it be more than mere theatrics? Here's what to expect, according to commentators from both left and right:

  • 'Ambience Will Trump Substance' Politico's Carol E. Lee writes. "Obama's speech comes at an ambiguous moment for him, the country and Congress, and his staff ... [T]he civility theme could bolster his agenda, which requires bipartisan support and plays to the strengths of a president who, over the past two years, has not always been quick on his feet when under partisan siege."
  • A 'Delicate Balancing Act,' the Brookings Institution's William Galston told Lee. "This State of the Union may turn out to be the most important speech of his presidency--not because it’s do or die but because he has to build on the momentum he’s got now... This is all about regaining his balance and the initiative."
  • Nothing More than a Pep Rally, George Will said on ABC's This Week, as The Daily Caller's Jeff Poor notes.
We’ve turned this into this panorama. In which an interminable speech, every president, regardless of party — tries to stroke every erogenous zone in the electorate and it becomes a political pep rally, to use the phrase of Chief Justice [John] Roberts last year. If it’s going to be a pep rally with the president’s supporters of whatever party standing up and bringing approval and histrionic pouting on the part of the other, then it’s no place for the judiciary, no place for the uniformed military, and no place for non-adolescent legislators.
  • Will Dems Turn Winning Positions Into Losers? The Guardian's Michael Tomasky wonders. "Obama will call for new spending in three areas: education, infrastructure and research and development. ... The polls say that Obama's positions are the winners. But the Democrats have wrested defeat from the hands of victory before. To emerge from the coming battle well-positioned for 2012, the White House will need to be much better at politics than it was during its first two years."
  • Can't Even Agree on Dumb Symbolism, The New Republic's Jonathan Chait writes.
This year, some Senators have proposed breaking up the traditional red team-blue team State of the Union seating chart and having Democrats and Republicans intermingle their seating. It's a completely symbolic move, a cost-free way to signal bipartisanship that requires no substantive policy compromise. Who could possibly be against that? Mitch McConnell, that's who," Chait writes. McConnell says he'll be sitting in his usual seat. "This is more evidence for my theory that McConnell is worried about his right flank in a primary or leadership challenge and acgtively looking to signal hostility to Democrats at every opportunity.
  • About that Shift to the Center  "The conventional wisdom is that Barack Obama will continue his 'move to the center,'" National Review's Jonah Goldberg writes. "The quotation marks are necessary because some people think he really is moving to the center, while others think he just wants to appear like he is. ... As much as I may enjoy it, this sort of strategizing leaves most Americans cold. As far as I can tell, these days they are less concerned with 'triangulation' than they are with the creation of good jobs that aren’t bogus make-work, or paid for with money borrowed from China or our grandkids."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.