It wasn’t so much a speech as it was a performance. Barack Obama didn’t have much new to offer in his State of the Union address — in fact, nothing really new — but he did, it turns out, have a lot to say.
What Obama came to sell was the memory of himself as forward-moving leader of a forward-moving country. This was his version of Morning in America. Obama said that things were getting better — and that Congress could either help in moving the country forward or it could stand in the way, but in any case, things would continue to improve on his watch.
Can he actually make the case — a president with approval ratings barely over 40 percent? It may be a long shot, but it was the best shot he’s got.
Strangely, all the pre-speech hype — spread by the president’s aides — was about a defiant Obama who was going to rule by executive order if congressional Republicans refused to go along. The Tea Partiers were readying their Tyrannus Obamanus replies. And then came the speech.
Instead of defiance, Obama jabbed Congress a few times but also praised “the barkeep’s son,” John Boehner, who looked truly touched. It was an optimistic Obama, who said the economy was improving and that Republicans should just face the fact that Obamacare was taking hold. He wasn’t defensive on Obamacare. He just said the obvious — that voting 40 times for repeal was a waste of time.
Obama didn’t ask for much from Congress after the disaster that was 2013. But he didn’t dwell on the failures either. We know about the government shutdown, the gun-control failure, the self-inflicted damage from the Obamacare exchange rollout, the Washington dysfunction that has devolved from late-night comedy to 24-7 farce.
And so, he asked Congress for better, which he made into a small ask. He began his speech with stories of Americans moving forward. He then asked Congress for help in keeping the progress going.
He asked for immigration reform, which may actually be coming. It’s an old story, but one in desperate need of an ending. He talked about income inequality. He shamed Congress for ending long-term unemployment funding and asked for a minimum-wage hike, which is a huge polling winner. And the polling number he wants to move — other than his own low approval ratings — is the country-moving-in-the-right-direction number.
I watched the speech on CNN, and in the post-speech wrap-up, all the pundits, left and right, praised it. That’s not because it was a centrist speech, appealing to all. It wasn’t. Or even because of the powerful tribute to Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, the Army ranger whom Obama had befriended before he was badly wounded by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. When Obama asked that Remsburg, now back home, and others not be forgotten as the wars end, everyone in the room had to be genuinely moved.
But what got the pundits was Obama’s unforced optimism. America, he was saying, is ready to move on from years of self-doubt. Obama started with himself as role model.
He didn’t really have any choice. He’s got three more years in the job, and it can’t go on like the last year. No one expects the Republican House to change its view of Obama or Obamacare. It’s very possible that Democrats could lose the Senate in November. This is really all on Obama.
One speech — even before millions of viewers — isn’t going to change anything. Obama has made many good speeches. But for him to succeed in getting help for those still hurting from the economic crisis and to find money to spend on infrastructure improvements, he has to convince the country that things are truly getting better and that good things will follow.
That’s why the first step for Obama — and the point of the speech — had to be to make the case that he believed it himself.