It is typical of these times in America that prior to Barack Obama’s first State of the Union speech, almost no one in Washington had much of an idea what he ought to focus on. Such was the case at Local 16, a lively bar on the corner of New Hampshire and U Street, where Generation Obama — his own youth movement — was holding the traditional SOTU Watch Party.
Whoops of “Yes, we can” greeted the PA system when it was switched on shortly before the address. But aside from this, and the chorus of BlackBerries going off around the room, few of these young Obamaniacs were confident enough to predict which way the president might go.
Since the Scott Brown vote in Massachusetts last week, in fact, all bets have been off. The two main topics on everyone’s lips have been jobs and health care, of course. But nobody knew if Obama was going to address one or both of these, nor even quite how. Just about the one thing Democratic commentators agreed on was the view, articulated in Politico by the governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, that unless Obama came out fighting, “we’re going to get shellacked”.
Beyond that, it was a free-for-all. Some felt that the president needed to lay it all out there, and call out the obstructionists who have helped to sink many of his proposals to date. Others felt he needed to placate the left, which had sneered at the details leaked by the White House on Tuesday concerning proposals for a debt commission and a three-year freeze on domestic spending. And many were adamant that he needed to say at least something about the two wars in which his country is fighting.
So, how did he fare? And was his much-fabled oratory up to the task of smoothing over the inevitable cracks he would have to leave between such irreconcilable policies?
Shades of change
To spare you the wait, for this was a long speech, what he did not indulge in was any Grant Park oratory. He kept his speech in that third-gear setting we have got used to since he came into office. Thankfully he also just about avoided the college professor tone that has alienated a good few Americans in the past 12 months.
But if he wasn’t Barack the orator, and he wasn’t Barack the professor, who was he, exactly?
Obama seemed to track his way across a spectrum of different roles, first setting himself up with almost Blair-like enunciative stretch as a local man to deliver a variant on Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain” moment. Then he shifted into family patriarch mode to remonstrate with those who have been causing him more than a little pain of late. Finally, he reappeared as a born-again politician in some semblance of control amid the melee going on around him.
It was a deliberate rhetorical arc chained to a new variant on his message of Change. “Yes, it can” became “Let’s get it done”. But the message, for all its artful repositioning of the president, sounded strangely unconvincing.
Obama started on the right note at least, coming out fighting as many hoped he would. Democrats had been gorging themselves on self-rebuke since the Brown shock wave, but he was having none of this.
“I have never been more hopeful about America’s future than I am tonight,” he declared, smiling. That caught people off-guard and drew an early round of applause. When he went on to talk about embodying the American people’s strength, he got more applause (and a few cheers from the drinkers in Local 16, too). He followed this up with a populist one-liner about the bank rescue programme. “We all hated the bank bailout,” he said. “I hated it. You hated it.”
So far, so good, then. But what almost everyone at Local 16 was waiting for was to see how bullish Obama was going to be on jobs, and to see how defensive he was going to be on health.
Rightly, he addressed the jobs issue first, setting in motion an ambitious new jobs bill and demanding that it appear on his desk without delay. The proposed legislation wasn’t short on specifics, either, with proposals to take $30bn from Wall Street to reinvest in community banks for lending on to small businesses, to eliminate all capital gains tax, and to instantiate instead small-business tax credits. He also set out a comprehensive set of FDR-style infrastructure projects, including work that will break ground today on a rail link in Florida, on nuclear power stations, and on clean-energy technology.
As if to counter the earlier populism, he even managed to weave in a liberalist take on the Victorian geopolitical theorist Halford Mackinder’s maxim that he who controls the world-island rules the world, declaring that “the nation that leads the clean-energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy”.
In fact, it was from this palette of “more jobs” that Obama added in pretty much all the colour he would see fit to render in his speech: competitiveness, national development, leadership, education. However, he failed, I thought, to drive home fully the importance of all this to the middle class, or to show his own democratic centrists what they would have to gain from yet more proposals spewing forth from their president. And it was rather a telling sign of his priorities that he left mention of the middle class — arguably the crucial group he needed to win over with this SOTU — until he got to the other hotly anticipated part of the speech: health care.
Wag that finger
But Obama did not get on to it until he was already a good half-hour into his speech, by which time those drinkers who had “bipartisan” on their SOTU bingo card were getting restless.
The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, had ramped up the issue of health care earlier in the day by saying that “failure is not an option”, but this only served to highlight the very lack of attention Obama gave it in his speech. The House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, was sticking closer to the script when he used an appearance on The Ed Schultz Show, earlier in the day, to clobber Republicans with the accusation that that such delay on reform as there had been was because they had “refused to participate”.
The president did not advance the issue beyond this. In fact, he seemed to want to run the clock down on the time he was giving to health, gesturing up to the First Lady, who stole the show as he was doubtless hoping she would. When Michelle Obama had directed attention back to her husband, he went on to point out that it was to relieve the burden on the middle class that he was still going to push for health-care reform, regardless of opposition.
Unlike all the rest of the speech, however, he offered no specifics here. What he did do was to offer a flat challenge to Republicans to come up with a better deal if they disliked his plans so much. “I will not walk away from these [uninsured] Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber,” he said.
Here then was Obama’s second guise for this speech: that of household head, replete with paternalistic finger-wagging, which he used to admonish the Republicans, primarily, insisting that “neither party should oppose every single bill just because they can”.
Indeed, for all the importance of health care and jobs, what his discussion of both issues was more properly about was the extent to which he would continue to reach out to the Republicans, or whether he would now give up the ghost on a bipartisan approach that has continually knocked him back, and go it alone.
The answer here was, as ever with Obama, a little of both. He openly criticised last week’s Supreme Court ruling on corporate political funding, and he again criticised the Republicans. But then it was on to a plethora of other bills that he still hoped to pass in the spirit of bipartisanship. And so it really wasn’t clear that very much had changed at all. John McCain and others, including Bob McConnell, governor of Virginia, who gave the official GOP response, were quick to pick up on this. Obama railed against the old politics, they pointed out, but his own speech had clearly been poll-tested to death.
In fairness, and probably for that very reason, the first Obama State of the Union address was probably quite a bit cleverer than many pundits are giving it credit for. Most importantly, it contained a jobs plan that far exceeded the small-bore shrapnel that many had predicted. But it was too weak on health, and too ambitious on everything else, as if to make up for that one gaping hole. It had some sound policy, some grandstanding, and the occasional sop (most notably to ending “Don’t ask, don’t tell” across the armed forces).
But the real time bomb hidden inside it — seeing as it is the tone as much as the substance of an SOTU that is most usually remembered — is that all too often Obama sounded just a little too clever, at times even a little too smug.
If he had kept it simpler, kept to the “Let’s try common sense” line he put in at the end — when many in Local 16, including myself, had begun to wane — he could have done more with it. And he could have been more convincing as a man of the people. That was the A-game that America needed him to play, because in Washington being right is not enough.
As I strolled back home along U Street, away from African-American Memorial Station, it struck me that, for all Washington is a great city, it always seems to look better at night. Predictably, while Obama was speaking, it sounded a little better tonight, too. But it was perhaps equally inevitable that the tune barely survived to the end of Larry King.