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UMD's Don Kettl: Rules for Obama's State of the Union

February 12, 2013

Jennifer Talhelm 301-405-4390

Don KettlBy Donald F. Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Obama's 2013 State of the Union Address is probably the most important speech of his second term, barring a major crisis. It might even be his most important speech, period, because now's the time to define and cement his legacy. So, as he preps for the big moment, here are five things he has to do—and five things he must avoid.

  1. Bookend the inaugural. Obama's second inaugural address got mostly strong reviews. He defined his own vision of liberalism for the 21st century. But now he needs soaring rhetoric to inspire - and specific details to give it life. Tough balancing act.
  2. Be Ali. Not the 1974 Mohammed Ali who "rope-a-doped" George Foreman, staying in the corner and daring Foreman to punch himself out. Instead, he needs to be the "float like a butterfly sting like a bee" Ali brought a decade before to beat Sonny Liston. Light on the feet will win the night. 
  3. It's still jobs, jobs, jobs. For better or worse, Obama owns the jobs issue now. He'll talk about investing in America to build jobs for the future.  But Americans want jobs, now, and he needs a believable plan to bring unemployment down. Given the fact the president can't do much to control the global jobs picture, that's a tall order.
  4. Lay out the budget plan. It's time to show us the money. Just how would the administration balance the budget? It's the fourth quarter of the budget game and it's time for the long ball.  Americans are tired of watching games that end in ugly ties and go into overtime.
  5. Paint the Republicans deeper into the corner. The Republicans, of course, have done a pretty good job of taking themselves out of the game. They're reeling, without a spokesperson or an idea to rally around. A powerful speech can win enough capital to keep them reeling.


  1. Don't lay down everything you've got. Four fiscal cliffs are down the road—the March 1 sequester battle, the end-of-March end of the government's authority to spend, the mid-April debt ceiling fight, and the October 1 start of the new budget year.  It's time to keep a save a few surprises for the inevitable cliff hangers.
  2. Go easy on plants in the balcony. We've had a great run of personages sitting near the First Lady who are singled out for applause. It's been a great device for a generation, but it needs a rest.
  3. Don't taunt the Republicans. No one needs another "You lie!" moment, like the ugly interruption of Obama's September 2009 speech.  Americans don't want to see live sniping on national television.
  4. Don't call out the Court. Obama badly stumbled in 2010 when he criticized the Supreme Court for its Citizens United ruling, which opened the floodgates for campaign cash. The 2012 election proved he was right—but it's not nice to skewer the justices when they're sitting right in front of the dais and, by protocol, can't even crack a scowl. Plus, without Chief Justice Roberts' decision to save Obamacare, he wouldn't even be giving this speech.
  5. Stay away from the jokes.  Remember the 2012 pun on oil spills and spilled milk?  Or the 2011 crack about which federal agency regulates salmon?  'Nuf said. He gives a great speech—but can't tell a good joke.

To that, add the big question: can he keep it under 50 minutes? And keep viewers from tuning out?