Also in Slate: Christopher Beam describes the partisan disharmony on the floor of the House during the speech. Bruce Reed praises Obama's reassuring, common-sense blueprint. Fred Kaplan argues the federal spending freeze should extend to the Pentagon, too. See images from Obama's first year in office, as well as past presidential speeches, from Magnum Photos.
It was appropriate that the iPad was unveiled the same day President Obama gave his first State of the Union speech. Both were centered on Jobs, and both sought to give people something useful they could put their hands on.
Obama answered complaints that he hasn't been focusing on the economy by calling for passage of a jobs bill and a series of other breaks for the middle class. None of the ideas was new or revolutionary (the House has already passed the jobs bill), but the speech was about emphasis. He'd planned to focus on the economy in the speech and in 2010, but he gave it a top priority he hadn't before. He called on Congress to pass the jobs bill before it did anything else. Health care reform is now clearly in second place—or lower.
The speech had a feel of a relaunch. In tone and spirit, the president returned repeatedly to the themes he campaigned on—a call to end partisanship and special interest influence, and to create a government equal to the spirit of the American people. "What the American people hope—what they deserve—is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences; to overcome the numbing weight of our politics."
He aligned himself not only with those who were frustrated with Washington but with historic American struggles—from the Civil War to World War II. He called upon the common sense of determination and grit that has rescued Americans before. Quoting a woman who wrote him, he said: "We are strained but hopeful, struggling but encouraged."
Hope: There's that word again. Once he identified with voters, Obama went beyond the simple "I get it" message. He took their hope and made it his own. "It's because of this spirit—this great decency and great strength—that I have never been more hopeful about America's future than I am tonight. Despite our hardships, our union is strong."
He is animated by the faith and hope of the voters. This is his best voice. (The hope and resilience message did get him elected, after all.) You could see it even in his delivery: He was on the balls of his feet, joking with Republicans and cracking corny jokes. He was connecting emotionally. He ended as he often did during the campaign—with tales of people struggling, using their stories to give poignancy and urgency to his call for everyone to behave like adults.
It's a stirring message—and Congress could use it. On CBS just after the speech, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., immediately devolved into a bickering spat. If it had gone on one minute longer, one of them might have called the other a dummy-head.
The question is whether, a year after Obama was elected on that message of hope, people still believe he can do anything about Washington gridlock and partisanship. At some point his inability to bring about results will make people less hopeful.
If the president's message does remind voters of why they like him so much, it may not help his fellow Democrats in Congress. It may, in fact, hurt them. Though Obama admitted some mistakes, saying some of his political setbacks were deserved, he put himself on the side of the noble public, irritated that Congress wasn't moving.
This helps him—but it validates the public's sense that Congress is the problem. And Democrats control Congress, so general upset at the institution hurts Democrats (who will also have a tough time adopting the Congress-is-bad message for their own races).