AS PRESIDENT Obama addresses Congress and the nation tonight in his first State of the Union speech, he faces the hardest sell of his still young incumbency.
How do you push a Democratic agenda after high-profile Democratic losses in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts?
How do you convince increasingly impatient and angry voters to, you know, stay the course?
And how do you bridge a growing gulf between what so many Americans hoped would come from Obama's election and where we are today: mired in two costly wars - one of which he expanded - an endless health-care debate and double-digit unemployment?
My guess is you don't. My guess is you reload and aim at other targets.
After all, this president is popular even if his programs aren't.
A majority of Americas favor him in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll (58 percent) and the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (52 percent).
But only a third of Americans like his performance on top domestic issues.
The latest USAToday/Gallup poll says that only 32 percent think that health care ought to be his top priority. The latest Quinnipiac Poll says that only 34 percent like his efforts in job creation.
So, expect him to play to the popularity.
Expect to hear about freezing government spending, a populist theme, and new ways to help "the middle class," which 80 percent of us claim we are.
For lovers of government garble, there's a new administration report that says that the middle class is "defined by their aspirations more than their incomes." Good to know.
And the Congressional Research Service says that our "self-defined" middle class has incomes between $40,000 and $250,000 or just about all but the unemployed and underpaid, pro athletes, surgeons, law partners and Wall Streeters.
It's no mystery that the middle class is tonight's target.
But, unless there are specifics on the freeze and details on paying for what the White House says are new tax breaks for child care and retirement plans and reducing student loans, why would we think such sweetness is just around the corner?
Despite past speeches, health-care reform is questionable, bi-partisanship is a joke and overall "change" in Washington so far looks like change for the worse.
And, yeah, the State of the Union gets more weight and pundit parsing than it deserves. It is only a speech (in Obama's case, performance art) that historically doesn't much move any incumbent's numbers.
Still, tonight's an opportunity to explain why the president's (some would say overly) ambitious agenda is in trouble.
What can he say? How about by coming down from the mountain and setting some smaller goals?
Start with a small bipartisan pact: Democrats won't leap to their feet and applaud every "yes we can;" Republicans will convince their Uncouth Caucus to refrain from yelling "You lie!"
Admit that government can't create jobs without extending the national deficit, yesterday projected to be $1.35 trillion this year, and cut business and payroll taxes to encourage hiring and retaining employees.
Admit that big insurance/big pharmacy control health care, and will do so even more thanks to that Supreme Court ruling legalizing corporate campaign giving, and settle for smaller incremental fixes to cut costs and help the uninsured.
Stress that one year does not a legacy make, that Democrats still hold a majority, that positive change remains a goal and is possible, but turning a country in a new direction can't be done in 12 months.
No doubt he'll deliver a fine speech. It's what he does best. But it really is time that this president produces rather than just proclaims. For, as the old English proverb says (and the great American philosopher Snoopy "thought" this week on the comics pages), "Fine words butter no parsnips." *
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