There is no requirement that the President of the United States make an appearance before Congress to deliver an update on the state of the Union. The Constitution only requires that the President inform Congress on the status of the nation. So, no one could really blame President Obama if he mailed it in considering the turmoil that surrounds the White House at this moment in time. The President will step to the lectern in the chamber of the House of Representatives tonight in the midst of an economic crisis, upheaval in key corners of the world, and against the backdrop of a new Republican majority in the House that seems intent to oppose the administration on every front. President Obama also delivers the State of the Union speech just two weeks after a horrific shooting in Arizona that resulted in injuries to 13 people, six deaths, including a 9 year-old girl, and has left a member of Congress, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, battling to recover after being shot in the head. As if the Tucson incident were not enough, the last few days there has been a wave of violence that has resulted in the deaths of law enforcement officers across the country.
While every State of the Union address involves some drama, there has been more than an ample share when this President has come down the center aisle of the House chamber. Last year, controversy arose when President Obama criticized a Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance as Justices of the high Court sat on the House floor, and one, Justice Samuelito, mouthing his disapproval. This year it is expected that some members of the Court will skip the speech. The President has also faced a sitting member of the House, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), interrupting his speech by shouting “You Lie,” a breach of etiquette at a moment when, despite the differences in party positions, has historically been one of national unity to exhibit the strength of the democracy. In the aftermath of the Arizona shootings, there is great anticipation regarding whether Democrats and Republicans will break protocol and sit together in the House chamber in a show of bipartisanship in response to calls to lower the vitriol in political discourse.
Tonight the biggest challenge facing the President is convincing the American public that he has a plan to resuscitate the nation’s economy. While there are signs of improvement, noticeably the turnaround in the nation’s auto industry, a beneficiary of the economic stimulus package, high unemployment and long-term joblessness persist. In recent days the President has made it a point to reach out to the private sector and express his commitment to facilitating job growth in private industry. To demonstrate his willingness to work with the business community, President Obama has named General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt to lead a new council on jobs and competiveness. His newfound camaraderie with the private sector is raising eyebrows among liberals who fear that the President will push a centrist agenda for political purposes to try to temper opposition to his reelection campaign next year. The White House has been in a running battle for months with some progressives who claim that the President has eschewed their agenda and instead focused on placating conservatives.
For Black Americans, tonight’s speech will be monitored for what the President says or does not say on the issue of jobs. While the nation has been in an economic slump, Black Americans, and Black men in particular, have taken the biggest hit. The scarcity of jobs has been particularly felt in the Black community, with unemployment rates regularly approaching twice that of whites and young adults facing catastrophic jobless numbers. Since his election President Obama has resisted calls to advance an economic agenda with a specific focus or “carve out” targeting Black joblessness. It is the one area where he has faced criticism from Black leadership that has generally been supportive of the President and aligned with his policy positions. The National Urban League has released a 12-point job growth agenda and its CEO, Marc Morial, has been aggressively pushing the plan in anticipation of the President’s speech tonight. The National Urban League proposal is significant because while the administration has been criticized for inaction by some Black leaders, few have offered a prescription to the nation’s economic woes that will put Blacks back to work. While there are a number of issues, including health care that remain prominent for Black Americans, the economic meltdown reigns as most significant as it threatens to undo the progress Blacks have made and produce a new generation of poverty and social dysfunction.