Rare has a state of the union address been so anxiously anticipated, as President Barack Obama prepares to deliver essentially his first to a joint session of Congress tonight. Rarer still is the mess inherited by an incoming president. Barely a month into the job and it's abundantly clear Obama will get no honeymoon.

Rare has a state of the union address been so anxiously anticipated, as President Barack Obama prepares to deliver essentially his first to a joint session of Congress tonight. Rarer still is the mess inherited by an incoming president. Barely a month into the job and it's abundantly clear Obama will get no honeymoon.


The economic downturn and Uncle Sam's responses to it are happening at such dizzying speed that it's all but impossible for most of us - perhaps all of us - to get our brains around it. In the last year we've witnessed bailout on top of bailout, stimulus on top of stimulus, to seemingly no positive effect. The government money going out the door has been unprecedented - surpassing even New Deal spending - with numbers so large they've become virtually meaningless. We've moved from millions to billions to trillions so quickly, can gazillions be just around the corner?


Meanwhile, the stock market remains in free-fall. The Big 3 automakers, supposedly rescued just a few months ago, are already back on hands and knees for more. Others - among them Mr. Free Market himself, Alan Greenspan - are saying the temporary nationalization of some banks may be necessary if the U.S. is to avoid becoming the Japan of the 1990s. Another former Federal Reserve chairman, Paul Volcker, can't stop comparing the current situation to the "Great Depression." The nation's borrowing seems out of control. Many if not most Americans are fearful - of losing jobs, health care, pensions, maybe homes - to the point of paralysis, which only makes matters worse.


Suffice it to say, the state of the union stinks, so Obama can skip over that part, exceedingly confident that his audience already knows and accepts that basic premise. Americans simply want some sense of what they can expect the nation's political leadership to do about it. Certainly we've gotten the impression over the last few weeks that no one on either side of the aisle really knows what the hell to do.


It's up to Obama tonight to convince us that he does, even if, on the heels of the Oscars, it requires the performance of a lifetime.


Undoubtedly the nation's 44th president has gotten no shortage of advice - former President Bill Clinton said last week that he needs to project more optimism - for what he ought to be doing and saying, so we might as well toss in our two cents, as well. Here goes:


If "No Drama Obama" has any basketball coach in him, well, it's halftime in the locker room with your team down by 20. While there's a time for a professorial approach, and calmness is not a bad thing, what the nation needs now is a pep talk.


To some degree the president must forget the referees sitting immediately before him - by which we mean Congress - and speak directly to the players, i.e., the American people. Congress is a hopeless constituency in that its reactions to what Obama says, no matter what he says, are so predictable it's pathetic: sycophantic Democrats will cheer and boo-bird Republicans will roll their eyes. Obama needs to convince those who can make the most difference that he knows the way, but that ultimately the outcome is primarily in their hands, not his.


If you'll forgive the ongoing sports metaphor, Obama then needs to diagram a play - provide a sense of direction, with a series of intermediate, achievable goals. No team erases a large deficit in one shot. With measurable gains in specific time frames, you build momentum.


The president needs to keep it simple, and keep it short. Already this recession has lasted longer than a season of "Desperate Housewives," so he'll lose the people he needs, no matter how panicked they are, if this speech becomes a tutorial on health care, on education, on energy policy.


Obama should confront the anger and frustration many of us justifiably feel - at the banking executives who took our tax money and gave themselves bonuses with it, at the homeowners facing foreclosure who are being rescued from their own irresponsibility - and turn that around. We are not doing this for them but for ourselves, because if we don't, those whose eyes were bigger than their pocketbooks, who wanted more than they could afford, could bring all of us down.


Finally, he needs to lay it all on the line. Dripping out the bad news drop by galling drop only does a number on our confidence. This may be one of those times in history where all bets are off, where we have to break all the rules - for a while, only a while - and do what we have to do to get through this crisis. Only then can we return to normal.


It's mighty formidable from the base of the mountain looking up, but that peak is surmountable. We've done it before and we can do it again. That's the message.


Peoria Journal Star