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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Obama must blend symbolism with his substance

President Barack Obama will face the static of the union tonight as he tries to symbolically stare down the economic insecurity that sweeps the land.

"He's given speeches before that were considered comeback moments," said one Democratic congressional staffer. "Maybe he can do that again. If he taps into a populist message, you'll hear support from the New York delegation. Listen for a big idea or two."

But annual addresses such as these have a way of proving almost as perishable as sour cream on a grocery shelf. President George W. Bush told the same room in 2002: "Terrorists who once occupied Afghanistan now occupy cells at Guantánamo Bay. And terrorist leaders who urged followers to sacrifice their lives are running for their own . . . "

Eight years later, of course, Bush's successor will be mentioning the latest military escalation in Afghanistan.

For practical impact, Obama's budget proposal, due next week, will speak louder than his words Wednesday. And what the House and Senate plan to do with that proposal will speak even louder than that.

Preliminary leaks - always part of this majestic ritual - feature tax breaks such as child-care credits and such measures as income caps on student loans.

Obama will seek to reassure those of us rattled by the huge federal deficit with a partial spending freeze - which Republicans already decry as inadequate.

Obama will also be seeking an endgame for - or exit strategy from - the domestic quagmire of the past year known as health-care reform.

The electoral context for all this has less to do with Obama than with all the senators and congressmembers on the ballot in the fall. Remember: At the midpoint of his own first term, President Bill Clinton saw both houses of Congress turn Republican.

New GOP Sen. Scott Brown's special election in Massachusetts - combined with other evidence of anti-incumbent sentiment - clearly gives jitters to Democrats with something to lose in November.

On Long Island, a lot of "targeting" talk has been directed toward the 1st Congressional District represented by fourth-term Rep. Tim Bishop. Elsewhere in the state, rookies draw interest, including first-term Democrats Michael McMahon of Staten Island and Scott Murphy of Glens Falls, who succeeded Kirsten Gillibrand in a razor-close special election. And several other seats are now considered in play as well, with candidates coming forward as challengers.

Tea Party activists and Wall Street Republicans alike seek to play up the state of "buyers' remorse" over Obama. Even New York City Democrats who are considered safe bets for re-election have been critical, if only of Obama's tactics, showing the degree to which the bloom is off the Rose Garden.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan), for one, told Fox News, "The president's mistake, and it was a mistake, was to underestimate how bad the situation was we inherited under Bush because he should not have said that unemployment would peak at 8 percent when Mark Zandi, [Sen. John] McCain's [R-Ariz.] adviser, was saying it would be going to go to 12 percent without the stimulus and 10 percent with the stimulus."

In a political environment ruled by economics and emotion, maybe Obama can call his new program something catchy - like, say, the War on Worrying Economically, with an entertaining acronym, WWE. That's the kind of symbolism these speeches are about.

>> TALK ABOUT IT: Join Dan Janison for a live chat with Long Islanders during and after tonight's State of the Union address -- click in below to send yourself a reminder to attend

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