SOTU: What the pundits are saying

A morning-after roundup

So the State of the Union played out something like a slowly deflating balloon—robust and shiny in the beginning, a shriveled afterthought by the end, all leaky air in the middle. After just minutes, the metaphors felt forced, the proposals felt old, and with Republicans sitting collegially alongside Democrats, there wasn’t even the usual drama of the divided standing O to keep my interest piqued (oh ludicrous theater, how I never thought I’d miss you!). As Melinda Henneberger wrote at Politics Daily, “it neither soared nor stumbled, while reminding us that everyone needs an editor.”

That seems to be the universal view today, at least, of the performance, with headlines like “Stirred, but not shaken,” and “That old familiar SOTU.” The rhetorical flourishes just don’t seem to be doing it for anyone anymore. But where the content is concerned—the stuff in between those big thudding “we do big things” and sputniks and whatnot—the president gave the pundits much to muse over.

The question most are grappling with this morning is how the president is repositioning himself: what his calls for a spending freeze and a ban on earmarks, his defense of health care, his sharp line on tax cuts, and his promises of “investment” say about where the president is directing himself politically. Is he continuing the posture of veiled liberal? Or is he genuinely moving to the center? Will he enrage or delight the left? Will he welcome or shun the right?

One common suggestion is that the president last night returned to the themes and style of his 2008 election campaign. That’s Matt Bai’s take in The New York Times today, arguing that after a two-year period in which the former senator dug deep into the policy machinations that propelled his agenda along, he is digging out, and returning to the vague themes of unity and togetherness on which he rode into the White House. Bai writes that “the most profound shift in the speech turned out not to be a move from left to center, as some had predicted, but rather a move away from legislative priorities in favor of telling a broader American story.”

It is a view echoed by The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn, who wrote that the president has returned to his position as a candidate with a long-term vision:

With this speech, Obama reached back to the themes of 2008, and of the primary campaign that stretched back in 2007. It wasn’t just the constant gestures of outreach to Republicans, starting with his recognition of new Speaker John Boehner. It was also the focus on the economy’s long-term difficulties—decaying infrastructure, an insufficiently educated workforce, too much debt. This was not a speech about boosting growth for 2011. It was a speech about boosting growth for 2021. And beyond.

David Corn at Mother Jones also noticed those gestures of outreach, and a shift in tone. “Is President Barack Obama a fierce down-sizer of government, or an ardent champion of boosting government investment in the economy?” he asked. “Well, he’s both.”

Bai’s colleague at the Times, Timothy Egan, who writes on politics from the West Coast, went with the much bandied-about idea that the speech was a “blueprint” for a second term, and gave the president some fairly good grades for what he has in store and how he told us about it. Apparently, this president can write a speech!

Obama was right to reach for larger themes, tapping into American DNA, when he said, “We do big things.” And, “We are poised for progress.” Indeed, polls this week showed that Americans are more optimistic now than at any time in the last four years. Obama’s task is to ride the better feelings, and take credit for them. Civility. Job creation. A call to American moments of greatness, past and present.

The shadows hanging over this speech were long, even for deep winter. There was John F. Kennedy’s stirring inaugural, 50 years ago this month. There was the dawn of the centennial year of the birth of Ronald Reagan. There was the Tucson tragedy, and the call to civility that — surprise! — still resonates.

Over at the Post, Eugene Robinson was similarly adulatory, explaining how the president last night may not have soared, but did, as others have said, employ “the lift and vision of his best campaign speeches” to reframe the debate. Robinson’s colleague E.J. Dionne expanded on the notion of a shifting narrative, the president choosing a “win the future” theme that could help him politically.

I’ve argued for a while that American decline is the specter haunting our politics, and that this could be the president’s undoing—or provide him with the opportunity to revive his presidency. Obama has clearly decided to take that challenge on, embracing the idea of America as an exceptional nation that always, well, wins the future. And he also believes that the “win the future” theme will be the key to winning a future election that is less than two years away.

Of course, if it’s true that Obama returned to campaign mode last night, then it is also true that we are seeing this morning some criticisms that seem very 2008—namely, that for all the nice ideas, there was not a lot of specifics in the president’s address. The Post’s Dan Balz, who noted the muted energy in the room, made this point, and wondered what it would mean for the president in terms of making substantial progress in the next two years.

There was much Obama did not say, or at least said in only the most general terms. His goals sounded concrete; the steps to get there far less so. That leaves open whether his new strategy will produce real cooperation with Republicans, convince voters and others that he really has gotten the message from the midterms or, most crucially, show progress in lowering the unemployment rate.

Balz’s colleague Matt Miller pointed out that the president touched on themes but failed to push his ideas far enough.

Take education, the key to the future, where everyone knows teachers matter most. If this really were a Sputnik moment, the president wouldn’t merely implore young Americans to “become a teacher” because “your country needs you.” He’d vow to make teaching the most attractive profession in America for talented young people, the way top-performing school systems in Singapore, Finland and South Korea do. On our current course, we’ll instead end Obama’s first term (and any second term) still recruiting teachers from the bottom two-thirds of college classes, and from the bottom third for high-poverty schools, while serious nations offer the training, pay and prestige that lures top talent to the classroom, with superior results.

Politico’s Glenn Thrush and Carrie Budoff Brown also noted some equivocation on the specifics, which went right down to language: “Even when Obama did provide specifics, he was careful not to put too fine a point on things, claiming that a series of free trade agreement would ‘support’-not create or save-320,000 American jobs.”

The Politico piece is a decent read, not just because it provides a nice roundup of how several congresspeople reacted to the speech, but because the takeaway is snappy and different: “…President Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union speech was, at its core, an unmistakably partisan challenge to congressional Republicans.” Sounds like the meme that could launch a thousand Politico stories.

Yet for all the surface civility, Obama wants to pick a fight, or at least draw a stark contrast, between his jobs-centric philosophy and the GOP’s determination to cut government first and ask questions later. That’s why he proposed an ambitious slate of new spending initiatives-he calls them “investments”—setting up an extraordinary mini-campaign this spring in which Obama and the GOP will put their cases before the American people.

It was quite different from another Politico piece, by Josh Gerstein, which claimed “Obama walked a moderate path.”

The Wall Street Journal seems to see last night’s speech in Politico’s terms: not necessarily a challenge to Republicans, but definitely a coarse, oversized pill for them to swallow.

…the vision he sketched out isn’t likely to win over skeptics on the right. They think his talk of cutting spending in some areas is more than trumped by his desire to spend more in other areas. And they already doubt his new pledges to ratchet back regulation.

Nor will the Obama vision be entirely pleasing to his friends on the left, who will be puzzled by his sudden interest in cutting the corporate tax rate and disturbed by the spending cuts they know are coming. “I’m sure there will be plenty of unhappiness about that,” a senior Obama aide said just before the speech.

Already, Obama’s vision doesn’t look to have won over those skeptics on the right. The editors of National Review have published a sharp rebuke of the president’s proposals, tearing at them one-by-one to ultimately declare that “Obama’s economic strategy is a high-speed train to nowhere.” And Jennifer Rubin, of the Post’s relatively new Right Turn blog, writes that the Obama we saw last night was not a centrist but a wordsmith who had rechristened “spending” as “investment.” She said the speech “did remind us that, at heart, Obama is a liberal who wishes to expand, seemingly without limitation of the federal government.” Then she just got spit-out-your-tea mean.

In a nutshell: Obama proposed a ton of new domestic spending, promised to freeze discretionary spending (attained by savaging defense), abstained from offering specifics on entitlement reform and largely ignored major foreign policy changes. Moreover, the delivery was so listless that this State of the Union address likely garnered less applause than any address in recent memory.

Not very kind, but a not unwelcome jolt when you’re forced to do a morning-after read-through of all this same-same commentary. If the president was something of a deflating balloon last night, the Web and the papers are a bouquet of them this morning. All this analysis for what? A speech that will be forgotten by Friday, only to be vaguely recalled as a point of comparison come January 2012. And it wasn’t even a good show. Let’s not get started on the blogs about the blogs…

Perhaps my favorite comment comes from Brendan Nyhan—as it often seems to these days—who wrote on his blog:

As for commenting on the speech itself, I’ll repeat what I said in 2007:

What’s more tedious: the State of the Union, or SOTU blogging? I’ll pass.

*NOTE: I originally posted video of last year’s SOTU address by mistake. Apologies.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , ,