Expect Obama to Make a Right Turn in the State of the Union Address by Gregory Hilton

Several GOP strategists are now expecting President Obama’s upcoming State of the Union Address to be in sharp contrast to his remarks a year ago. This time a central focus will be on deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility. Obama spent more money on new programs in his first nine months than Bill Clinton did in eight years, and the result was a 30% drop in the President’s popularity among independent voters.
There is little room for big spending initiatives, and I will not be surprised if the speech includes an applause line which would bring all Congressional Republicans to their feet. That would definitely happen if Obama announced “Because of the deficit this is not the right time for a global warming cap-and-trade bill.” Bill Clinton did the same thing in 1995 when he said “The era of big government is over.” The President’s comments on Afghanistan will also result in well deserved GOP applause.
The Obama White House contains astute political professionals and they are aware of the polling data. It indicates Obama is beginning his second year with the highest disapproval rating of any President since modern polling began (see today’s Gallup Poll chart). As of now, 44% of the public disapproves of the job he’s doing as president.
That’s four points higher than the next closest president (Reagan), six points higher than Bill Clinton, and 17 points higher than Jimmy Carter. Obama also begins 2010 with the second worst job approval rating of any president in the last 56 years.
The State of the Union will not occur until after the passage of health care reform. My guess is that the only new domestic initiatives revealed in the speech will be a jobs program and enhanced security measures to stop terrorism. The President will say his 2010 focus is on the deficit, jobs and keeping America safe.
He will say the medium-term deficits are too high, and as part of the new budget process, “I am committed to bringing them down now.” The headline from the speech will be the President’s surprise decision to move $100 billion from the financial bailout bill to deficit reduction.
The best way to achieve meaningful reductions is by scaling back entitlement programs. Defense reductions would be popular with the Democratic Party base, but not with the electorate. Jimmy Carter demonstrated that in 1978 and 1980.
Obama’s Chief of Staff, former Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL), held a high ranking post in the Clinton White House. It would not be surprising if he reminded the President that Bill Clinton was successful in moving rapidly to the right after the GOP captured the House and Senate in the 1994 midterm elections.
Clinton jettisoned all of his political advisers and instead relied on Dick Morris who strongly urged him to govern as a moderate. The result was spectacular for Clinton who signed the initiatives contained in the GOP’s Contract with America, and was easily re-elected in 1996.
Will Obama be able to adopt the same tactics? I am skeptical and an important difference is that Obama will continue to have a Democratic Congress. It will not be easy for many Democrats to sell themselves as deeply concerned about spending after voting for the stimulus, the bailouts, the health care legislation, the Obama budget and an expensive plan to address global warming.
The Democrats are already on record as supporting four enormous new government programs. After the speech the big question will be was this election year rhetoric or a new reality? If Obama does not move significantly on deficit and budget reductions, his comments from the speech will be rebroadcast as GOP campaign ads next fall.

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