This coming Wednesday, January 27, 2010, at approximately 8pm EST, President Obama will stand at a podium to deliver his 1st State of the Union Speech to the nation. The irony of the timing could not be more pronounced.
For on that very day another address will probably steal the the President's thunder. Steve Jobs is expected to use his highly-anticipated early afternoon talk to unveil the latest in a string of innovative, revolutionary Apple products, the iTablet, which will dominate the consumer electronic category, breathing life into a dormant economy. . . which is a bit more than anyone expects will come from the pulpit in the evening.
But back to the President and his speech.
The State of the Union proceedings are full of customs, with attendance, seating arrangements and even the first line of the President's speech, already laid out. And therein lies the rub.
This will perhaps be the most uncomfortable State of the Union in our nations history. Since the State of the Union was not read aloud by a President from 1801 to 1923, instead being delivered in written text to Congress, there was no SOTU address preceding the Civil War, which would have been the only time I can imagine being as uncomfortable.
The problem is not in what the President will say after all the formalities are covered, it's everything up to that point.
The President has to stand in front of a seated Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice-President Joe Biden. While Biden remains a fairly popular figure with the public, he has, much to everyone's surprise, been pushed far into the background during this first year of the Obama Administration. Speaker Pelosi,on the other hand, has one of the lowest public approval ratings of any person to hold that position. And she is the person who must call the chamber to order.
Next, we must then consider that both the entire House and Senate will be seated before the President. This at a time when these members Congress are under attack (rightfully) by members of their own party.
Democrats are only now awakening to the wrath of the Progressive members of the party, who are seizing on the loss of Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts this week, to redirect their political contributions and assail the parties actions over the past 12 months in print and in the blogosphere.
Republicans are grappling with how to appease the Teabagger element of it's party, who have already won seats in the Senate and Governors mansions across the country, by running it's candidates against other Republicans.
Congress, as a whole, is polling far worse than even Speaker Pelosi.
Seated in front of the Congress will be members of the Presidential Cabinet. Among their number will be the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The public dismay with two costly and increasingly deadly wars (one of which we just escalated), allegations of murder at Gitmo, military contractor misconduct (some criminal), ballooning budgets (46% of the total national budget) and the increasingly shocking revelations about CIA actions in regard to secretly run black sites still being run around the globe, have a growing chorus calling for the President to relieve Secretary Gates of his duty, in an effort to seek a needed new direction on these fronts.
And then there are the members of the very first row, the Justices of the Supreme Court. After Thursday's ruling in favor of granting 1st Amendment Rights to corporations, this will be the first time in the television era where these nine men and women will be more than "the people people in black." Without getting into the details of the decision itself, the public outcry over the ruling has been rancorous and, with each day giving understanding of it's impact, fearful.
Then there's President Obama, who has spent a year throwing away nearly every bit of the enormous political capital he was swept into office with in his efforts to "make friends" with legislators who have: questioned his citizenship, distributed political fliers with racist themes about himself and members of his family, called him a liar ON THE FLOOR OF CONGRESS ON NATIONAL TELEVISION, refused Cabinet positions he has offered, stalled every piece of legislation he has asked for from the Congress and spent the summer starting and stoking fears of his creating "Death panels" that would kill their family members.
In the 1st year in office, no President has ever seen a larger drop in the public approval rating. Made more remarkable because, no President in the modern era has ever entered the Oval Office with higher approval ratings than Barrack Obama.
President Obama's signature piece of legislation, the Health Care reform that became the Health Insurance reform Bill, is hugely unpopular and has still not reached his desk. This despite the President setting a deadline of early-August 2009, then October, then Christmas and lastly, before his State of the Union speech.
With Congress, at the President's direction, working on appeasing the minority opposition party, every other piece of important legislation had to be tabled in an effort to "get things done" on Health Care. And things have not "got done."
So it is in this environment, with the specter of; 10.5% (officially, though some estimates are now at 18.9%) Unemployment, Wall Street Holding the country's credit system hostage, record foreclosure, record evictions, municipal and state governments cutting back on critical services due to financial struggles (to the point of California holding a state-run garage sale) and withering American industries, from automobiles to insurance to retailers, hanging over his head, the President is required by protocol, to deliver this as the first line of his speech:
"Ladies and Gentlemen, the State of the Union is strong."
Regardless of how eloquent or soaring the speech is from that point, this requirement will seem detached from the realities for many in the country, and make for a most uncomfortable moment.