By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 2/24/2009 2:42:53 PM ET 2009-02-24T19:42:53

The first speech by a new president to a joint session of Congress is one of Washington’s magnificent ceremonial events.

Filling the House chamber when Obama speaks at 9 p.m. ET Tuesday night will be almost all of the members of the House and Senate, joined by black-gowned Supreme Court justices, members of the diplomatic corps, and perhaps a few “ordinary heroes” chosen for the occasion.

The latter gives a president the chance to gesture up at the gallery and, for example, praise a Marine’s valor or, as President Ronald Reagan did in 1982, pay tribute to Lenny Skutnik for plunging into the icy Potomac River to rescue a passenger from a plane crash.

The president’s inaugural address is for the people, and for the world audience.

But the president’s first speech to Congress is his chance to focus his supporters’ intensity on the legislators sitting right in front of him in the House chamber.

Obama’s mandate is the largest popular vote percentage for a president since George H.W. Bush’s in 1988. With this backing, he will tell those who write the laws what course he has charted for their late-night drafting sessions.

Focus on the economy, but...
Obama press spokesman Robert Gibbs said last week that the president’s speech will focus mostly on efforts to revive the economy.

He will speak at a time of unprecedented federal spending — the highest level since World War II as a percent of Gross Domestic Product. Such massive outlays raise questions about the magnitude of the federal debt, future inflation, and especially about U.S. indebtedness to China, whose frugal savers are in effect helping pay for the stimulus by buying U.S. Treasury securities.

With even former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan musing last week about the need for nationalization of U.S. banks, the scale of federal intervention in the economy is history-making.

But Gibbs added last week, “You'd have a hard time talking about our economy without talking about our commitments around the world, the health of our (military) force structure, and obviously what is going on in both Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The president’s budget proposal will follow the day after his speech.

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One department that will merit special scrutiny is defense. In his testimony last month to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, “the spigot of defense funding opened by 9/11 is closing. With two major campaigns ongoing, the economic crisis and resulting budget pressures will force hard choices on this department.”

How much military funding is Obama willing to ask for, and at what cost to the taxpayers?

A night for spectacle and celebration
But Tuesday night’s event is not really the time for budget ledger books and sharpened number two pencils.

It is a night for spectacle and celebration. What people outside Washington, D.C., sometimes don’t appreciate is that the theatrical part of the capital city’s politics is compensation for the drudgery, the painstaking 2 a.m. drafting of legislation, and the hard-nosed trade-offs that result in deals.

Obama's inboxTuesday night’s event is “see and be seen” in Washington, D.C. — just as Oscar night is in Hollywood.

The president’s speech to a joint session, whether it's called a State of the Union address or not, has the feel of a high school football rally attended by the student bodies of both the home team and the visiting team. Members of each team take turns, leaping to their feet to applaud statements they like, or groan in dismay at passages they don’t.

“I think the State of the Union message is one of the most over-rated things in the world,” groused Rep. David Obey, D-Wisc., back in 2007 when I asked him about the atmosphere he expected for President Bush’s address that year. “I frankly don’t care what he says; I care what he does.”

Obey has seen a lot of these speeches: He has served in the House since 1969.

'Essentially political propaganda'
The annual address, Obey said, “has been made what it is by television and by media advisors. It is essentially political propaganda with members of Congress serving as a bunch of jumping Jacks.”

But since the president and the majority in Congress are now of the same party (Obey’s party), this will be an especially sweet experience for the winners.

When Obama steps to the dais in the House chamber, he will see before him 255 House Democrats and 58 Democratic senators. In 1993, when Bill Clinton appeared for his first speech to Congress, he had a Democratic majority of 258 in the House and 57 in the Senate.

But the momentum in 1993 was with the GOP minority more than with Clinton. Forty years of Democratic domination of Congress were just about to end. Newt Gingrich was about to take command.

How today differs from 1993
The momentum today is not with congressional Republicans, nor has it been with them since they lost control of Congress in 2006.

The massed ranks of 313 Democrats will look impressive on Tuesday night. But only half a dozen members of Congress proved to be important in moving Obama’s stimulus bill to final passage.

It was Obama’s coming to terms with Republican senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania — and with Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska — and their willingness to back him, that made the difference in passing the stimulus bill.

Despite the performance Tuesday night, it may well be more relevant to hear what Obama, or his deputies, are saying in private to Collins, Snowe, Specter, and Nelson during the legislative battles soon to come.

The meetings that probably made the stimulus bill happen were the one-on-one sessions at the White House on Feb. 4 between Obama and Snowe, Collins and Nelson. Obama also telephoned Nelson in the succeeding days to encourage his efforts to find a deal Democrats could support.

Private salesman more important than orator
Obama’s persuasiveness as private salesman may be more important to his success than his talent as an orator.

The idea of a president going in person to Congress to urge it to pass a legislative agenda comes from one of Obama’s Democratic predecessors, a man who, like himself, was a former academic, a renowned author, and a superb orator, Woodrow Wilson.

After many years when no president had appeared in person before Congress, Wilson trekked up to Capitol Hill to spur members to action on his domestic agenda.

As he took office in 1913, Wilson had noted, "It would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs, for all my preparation has been in domestic affairs."

But Wilson ended up leading the United States into a war in Europe. Obama has focused on the domestic economy but America is, unlike 1913, the pre-eminent world power and, like Wilson, Obama may end up dealing chiefly with foreign affairs.

A nuclear weapon for Iran?
One reminder of the way events abroad may dominate Obama’s presidency came last Thursday when officials at the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency delivered their first assessment of Iran's nuclear program since Obama took office.

Video: Obama: Biden will oversee recovery They declared for the first time that Tehran now had accumulated enough uranium to make an atom bomb.

Will Obama address this unsettling news on Tuesday night?

“Obama does not have many of his senior nuclear non-proliferation people in place yet,” said David Albright, a nuclear weapons expert and president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. “So, I would not really expect him to announce a major new Iran nuclear policy Tuesday.”

But, Albright added, “I would hope he says that the United States wants to sit down with Iran and discuss its nuclear program, but at the same time he would state that U.S. policy is that Iran should not develop a nuclear weapons capability."

As a presidential candidate visiting Israel last July, Obama declared that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a "grave threat" to the world.

Obama said the previous month, “I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” He added, “Let there be no doubt: I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally, Israel.”

Once the echoes of Tuesday night’s applause have faded, Iran’s uranium will be one of the quandaries that Obama must turn to.

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