Can the Teleprompter President ever sound fresh again?
Barack Obama must if he is to recapture some of the magic that made Americans want to vote for him in the first place. And if his first official State of the Union address is not the ideal vehicle for rousing oratory, Mr. Obama must seize the opportunity to get Americans listening to him once more.
The President who rode to power on a promise to end gridlock in Washington is now the one who's stuck. His delivery has gone flat. He is mocked for taking his Teleprompter everywhere, reinforcing the image of a President who has a hard time being real.
His problems are more than superficial. Mr. Obama's domestic agenda is on life support if not already dead. More voters disapprove than approve of the job he's doing. The great American middle thinks he's got his priorities badly wrong.
All of this makes tonight's State of the Union speech - or SOTU, in Washington shorthand - a particularly treacherous rite of passage for Mr. Obama. He must use the prime-time address to Congress to reconnect with Americans, an increasing number of whom have come to see him as an ideologically driven liberal who is out of touch with their bread-and-butter concerns.
The populist tone Mr. Obama has struck in the wake of the Democrats' stinging loss of Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat shows that the White House recognizes the need to recalibrate the President's pitch. But must he also recalibrate his policies?
"I'd rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president," Mr. Obama, vowing to stick to his agenda in spite of the polls, told ABC News in an interview broadcast yesterday.
There is a recent historical precedent for a president with flagging popularity deciding to dig in his heels - albeit on the other side of the left-right divide. Ronald Reagan, the last president to see his first-year approval rating dip below 50 per cent on the heels of a devastating recession, used his 1982 State of the Union speech to silence critics within his own party who urged him to focus on deficit reduction.
"The doubters would have us turn back the clock with tax increases that would offset the personal tax-rate reductions already passed by Congress. Raise present taxes to cut future deficits, they tell us. I don't believe we should buy their argument," a defiant Mr. Reagan declared.
The Great Communicator, as Mr. Reagan later came to be known, could dare to demand the benefit of the doubt from Congress and Americans because he had already produced meaningful results by this point in his first term. He had stared down striking air traffic controllers and pushed a massive tax cut through Congress, despite Democratic control of the House of Representatives.
"Ronald Reagan had already had some great successes. Barack Obama does not have the equivalent. He is really reeling right now," observed Gleaves Whitney, director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Mich. "Barack Obama is going to have to reach deep into his idealistic core and say we have tried to do some things whose time has not come, frankly."
It's true that most voters think the President has been preoccupied with passing a health-care-reform package that focuses too much on extending coverage to the 15 per cent of Americans who are uninsured and too little on taming spiralling costs for the 85 per cent who already have insurance.
It's also true that three-quarters of voters think the President's $787-billion economic stimulus package has been largely a waste of money. Support for the package - 56 per cent against, 44 per cent for - is the mirror image of what it was at the time of its passage almost a year ago, according to a CNN poll this week.
Yet, with unemployment hovering stubbornly at 10 per cent, the speech tonight must try to simultaneously address the somewhat contradictory desire of Americans for a quick economic fix and their growing anxiety that the Obama administration is not taking the deficit and debt reduction seriously enough.
Modest tax breaks for the middle class and small businesses will be aimed at showing that Mr. Obama feels recession-ravaged Americans' pain.
A vow to freeze discretionary federal government spending for three years, starting with the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1, is meant to placate the 64 per cent of Americans who disapprove of the President's handling of the $1.3-trillion deficit. But the freeze - from which the budget blobs that are defence and Medicare are exempted - risks backfiring as a politically driven half-measure.
Still, more than anything, Americans look to SOTU for proof of leadership. Occasionally, they think they find it. Bill Clinton saw his approval ratings skyrocket in the days after his 1998 speech even though it came only a few days after reports surfaced that he had lied under oath about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Instead of appearing destabilized, Mr. Clinton looked strong, determined and in control.
"Clinton had an opportunity to make himself politically relevant again," noted Russell Riley, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs. "It may well be that Barack Obama has the same kind of luck."