Tonight is President Obama's moment. With his third State of the Union address, the president has his best chance to build on the unlikely momentum he has created since Democrats took their "shellacking" in November.
But if his goals include advancing the likelihood of his re-election next year -- as they surely do -- then he will have to thread multiple needles that deal with frustratingly contradictory issues: economic resurgence versus deficit reduction; ongoing war in Afghanistan versus a war-weary public (and deficit reduction); health care reform versus public skepticism. Not only that, he will have to do it with his "A" game -- with the kind of credibility and performance he brought to the stellar address he delivered after this month's tragic shootings in Arizona.
Based on his first two years in office, we expect Obama to confront these conflicting issues head-on. That probably means, for example, beginning the work of deficit reduction while insisting on the federal government's continuing role in nurturing an economy that is clearly improving but still anemic.
To some extent, that could be an easy sell. Republicans and, eventually, Democrats agreed last year to extend the Bush tax cuts, temporarily reducing the withholding for Social Security and extending unemployment benefits, for example. All exacerbate the federal deficit, which now stands at more than $1.4 trillion, but both sides recognized -- albeit for different reasons -- that there was an important reason for doing it.
Indeed, a recent CBS News/New York Times poll showed that while 64 percent of respondents said they are very concerned about the deficit, only 6 percent saw it as the nation's most pressing problem, the same amount who saw health care that way. Slightly more than half of the respondents -- 51 percent -- said jobs and the economy were the most pressing problem.
They are right. A poorly functioning economy not only puts severe stress on individuals and families, but on public budgets. Tax revenues wither while demand rises for services such as unemployment benefits, food stamps and welfare. People who become ill and lack health insurance show up in hospital emergency rooms, often unable to pay the bill.
There's plenty more that Americans need to hear from Obama tonight, including a willingness to reshape the federal health care reform bill. When Republicans are finished grandstanding about repeal, they should look for common ground with Democrats to improve the bill so that it does what reform always needed to do, but didn't: control the soaring costs of care. Lawsuit reform needs to be part of that discussion.
As he pledged during his 2008 campaign, Obama also needs to focus on entitlement reform. Medicare, in particular, and Social Security are moving toward insolvency. The problems are resolveable, but not without some difficult changes that could include raising the retirement age and lifting the cap on the amount of income subject to the payroll tax.
The president will deal with much more than these issues, to be sure. A State of the Union speech is, in good part, theater after all, and the president is a performer in the class of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. But serious issues are on the line and Obama's presentation can make the difference between success or failure in dealing with them. With a speech that confronts these issues while welcoming Republicans' involvement, he can rally the public to his side. That's tonight's main goal.