Opinion: Why you should watch the State of the Union despite Obama’s spoilers

President Obama is seen delivering his State of the Union address in 2014 as Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio listen. Obama delivers his 2015 address on Tuesday, Jan. 20.
(Charles Dharapak / Associated Press)

President Obama heads for Capitol Hill on Tuesday evening [Tuesday 6 p.m. PST] to give his annual State of the Union address, but he has already robbed the event of suspense by unveiling many of his policy ideas ahead of time.

Among them: proposals to raise taxes on investment gains and inherited wealth, and use some of the money for low-income tax cuts; more spending on roads, bridges and other infrastructure, financed through a new bond program; and a new $60 billion program to make community college tuition free for most students.

“I figured, why wait for the State of the Union?” Obama told an audience in Tennessee on Jan. 9. “Why stand on formalities? Let’s get the ball rolling.”


So is there any reason to gather the family around the television to see what the president actually says?

Sure – because the impact of the speech won’t come solely from what Obama says, but also from how he says it.

Ever since Republicans took control of the Senate (and thus, both houses of Congress) in November’s election, Obama and congressional leaders have been circling each other like wary boxers, jabbing past each other’s ears and testing each other’s intentions.

Both sides already know they’ll collide on plenty of issues, from the federal budget and tax policy to immigration and energy and healthcare. The question is, after they collide, will they manage to negotiate any compromises? And is there room for bipartisan action on secondary issues such as trade and corporate taxes?

So far, both sides have been talking about bipartisanship, but acting unilaterally. With Congress deadlocked over immigration reform, Obama used executive actions to defer deportation of millions of undocumented aliens; Republicans howled – and promptly voted (in the House) to repeal his action. Obama has threatened to veto no fewer than five proposed GOP bills, drawing more Republican howls – although the president’s veto power is right there in the Constitution. (Ronald Reagan vetoed 39 bills in eight years; so far, Obama has vetoed only two.)

Obama has sounded both notes in recent weeks. At a meeting with leaders from both parties, he said he planned to focus on “areas where we can agree … in the spirit of cooperation and putting America first.”

But at a meeting with Senate Democrats, the president said he doesn’t intend to defer much to the new GOP majority. “I’m not going to spend the next two years on defense; I’m going to play offense,” he said, according to Politico.

The question for Tuesday evening is: Which Obama shows up?

Will his speech be a fiery, Republican-lambasting campaign stemwinder? Will he cast his new tax proposals -- which don’t have a prayer of passing -- as the only sensible way to revive middle class income growth, and paint his GOP opponents as defenders of greed?

Or will he give equal time to the more prosaic issues on which a measure of bipartisan cooperation is still possible: trade treaties, corporate tax reform and infrastructure spending?

Republicans aren’t going to decide whether to negotiate with Obama based on how badly he hurts their feelings (which are rarely as tender as they claim). But the president’s tone can make it harder or easier for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to persuade their balky conservative followers to accept the fiscal deals needed to keep the government running.

So watch the speech not only for the words, but also for the music.

Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter@DoyleMcManus