Listen for election themes

Don’t expect to come away from tonight’s State of the Union speech with a blueprint for what President Obama and Congress will accomplish this year. Given the dysfunction in the other Washington, that promises to be very little.

What you should get, though, from the president’s annual address to Congress, and the Republican response from Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (who some prominent Republicans are still encouraging to jump into the presidential race), will be worth your time:

A clearly articulated outline of the central issues in this year’s presidential and congressional elections.

The Constitution requires the president to update Congress on the state of the union, “and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient …”

Most years, the result is a laundry list of high-minded proposals that sound great but go nowhere. Among Obama’s fizzles from last year: reforming the tax system, replacing the No Child Left Behind education law with something better, rewriting immigration laws, and, sadly, an impassioned plea for national unity following the assassination attempt on Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

In an election year, converting significant proposals into law is even less likely. Political strategists from both parties are more fixed on winning the perception game than creating sound, bipartisan policy.

Perception is the name of the game tonight, but that isn’t necessarily bad. State of the Union speeches, and the opposition’s response, should be aspirational statements that inspire Americans to work toward a common good. Each side will seek to appeal to American’s common aspirations — freedom, opportunity, a sustainable environment, for example — fostering positive perceptions they can build on through a spring, summer and fall of campaigning.

The missing piece in recent years has been a willingness by Democrats and Republicans to meet somewhere in the middle and actually accomplish something. That’s a key point we’ll be listening for from Obama and Daniels tonight: a call to look for areas where compromise can lead to progress, even while both sides wage a battle of ideas about how best to solve the nation’s most vexing challenges.

As outlines of the campaign debate to come, Obama’s and Daniels’ addresses will contain plenty of partisanship. But they should do so in a tone that shows jaded voters that the battle is one between patriotic Americans whose political philosophies differ in important ways, but whose love of country and desire for a better future comes first.

They should call on the best of who we are, and inspire us to be even better.

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