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.”