The president uses the State of the Union speech to relaunch his brand.
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).
The speech also had internal inconsistencies. When talking about why bipartisanship broke down so soon after 9/11, Obama said he didn't want to relitigate the past. But throughout the earlier part of the speech he did relitigate the past, explaining how Republican policies ruined the economy. (He was, however, more restrained than Reagan, who in his 1982 State of the Union address relitigated the past by blaming Jimmy Carter for America's woes.)
Listeners might also find an inconsistency when the president said, "No, I will not give up on changing the tone of our politics. I know it's an election year. And after last week, it is clear that campaign fever has come even earlier than usual. But we still need to govern." Pledges of excessive rectitude are always a little hard to take. (Obama himself made fun of John Edwards during the campaign for statements like this.) It's even harder to take when just a few weeks ago Obama was beating up on Scott Brown in Massachusetts. Though Obama said he didn't know much about his policies, he said the Republican candidate was in the pocket of the insurance companies and banks and that he was a phony trying to dupe voters.
These inconsistencies were there during the campaign, of course, but people were willing to forgive or overlook them. Now that he's been president for a year, Obama can't count on voters to be so magnanimous.
As expected, the president called for a spending freeze and said he would name a commission to tackle the deficit. He said he would work with Congress and the military to reverse the ban on gays serving in the armed forces. He asked Congress to reconsider health care reform, but his call for action was no more emphatic than before. The president said he wanted health care reform finished by the State of the Union, and so it may well be—just not in the sense that he hoped for. Nothing in the speech changed that dynamic.
The State of the Union speech was intended, at least in part, to remind voters that the president is the same guy they elected 14 months ago. It's another similarity the speech shares with the iPad: They were seen as possibly reviving troubled enterprises (the publishing industry and the Obama brand). The president's speech was another of his good ones. But like the iPad and publishing, it's not clear how much the good packaging really will help the venture.
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