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.