Maybe it's not "The Most Important Speech of His Presidency" -- according to conventional wisdom, that would have been his recent announcement of a "new direction" in Iraq -- but the upcoming State of the Union address still presents a hugely significant opportunity for President Bush.
He can seize that opportunity if he sets the right ambitious, activist tone, and if he breaks decisively with the recent tradition of presenting boring laundry lists in place of oratory.
Surely, the president and his advisors understand that they must use this speech to reassure the public that the remaining two years of this administration will amount to more than gridlock, partisan posturing and polarization. The Democrats who now control both houses of Congress made a credible start with their well-advertised "100 Hours" agenda -- winning passage of a series of largely insignificant, demonstrably popular and mostly uncontroversial measures.
Some of these feel-good gestures (like the lavish funding for embryonic stem cell research) will no doubt inspire Bush vetoes. But the president should avoid making any reference whatever to these forthcoming battles. Doing so would amount to a tacit acknowledgment that the Democrats now set the agenda and that he merely responds, enabling them to focus ongoing debate on issues on which both the public and Congressional majorities clearly side with them.
In order to regain the initiative, to rally demoralized Republicans, to restore the reformist edge and ambitious conservative vision that recently have been overwhelmed by setbacks in Iraq and at the ballot box, President Bush must chart a middle course between conciliation and confrontation, deference and defiance. He can't come across like a whipped puppy that's eager to please, but he must also avoid any suggestion of stubborn obstructionism that ignores the messages of the recent elections.
To convey the right flavor of energy and engagement, the president should concentrate on three essentials for the State of the Union Address:
1. Startle the Country With Brevity and Focus
Let's face it: Most SOTU speeches are snoozers -- even when delivered by first class orators like Reagan and Clinton. All the departments of government contribute their own ideas during the preparation period, and expect some nod from the president. These stately, lumbering addresses provide pomp and grandeur and lots of opportunity for partisan applause, but only rarely can anyone remember what the president actually said.