The president delivers a boffo performance.
Whatever happens next, the president's 2011 State of the Union speech represents not a new Barack Obama, but a return to the original version. You know the one. The magnetic Barack Obama of the "Red American/Blue America" 2004 Democratic convention speech. The distinguished Barack Obama whose non-ideological best-selling book captivated the nation. The inspiring Barack Obama whose post-partisan rhetoric and promise won him the White House with decisive support, including from independent voters.
Tuesday, that Obama, optimistic and unifying, borrowed from the best of his predecessors, as all smart politicians do. From Ronald Reagan, upbeat tales of American success stories, showcasing the real-life heroes sitting in the box with the First Lady. From Bill Clinton, rhetorical carrots dangled across the aisle—Obama cheerfully expressed an openness to medical malpractice reform, nuclear power, entitlement and tax reform, and changes in his cherished health care law—while drawing lines in the sand on issues where the American people support his positions by 70% plus. And from George W. Bush, a confidence that if a president says he what he means and means what he says, he can't go wrong.
With a few exceptions, such as touting the passage of the change in the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and pushing for a liberalization in laws governing the rights of children of illegal immigrants, Obama avoided provocative oratory geared towards energizing his party's liberals. Republican control of the House of Representatives is a living, breathing reality now; the left can joust with the new power right, rather than critiquing the White House for daring to cooperate with the opposition. Obama is the left's Champion-in-Chief now, and they are likely to unite behind him, just in time.
The president's speech made a down payment on the two biggest political challenges he faces in 2011 and 2012, including his own re-election. First, he delivered one of the strongest efforts yet at explaining his rhetorical theory of the case for how his policies will create jobs in America. And, second, he laid even more of a trap for Republicans, whose challenge to cut spending without damaging valuable programs or raising taxes grows more difficult by the day (and the president knows it).
Obama's presentation was close to flawless: upbeat and animated, leisurely and assured, surprisingly engaging even when he lapsed into the professorial mode he favors over tub-thumping. He also offered up some light, teasing humor, a rare feat for the generally sober president, whose forays into comedy often seem forced or hammy. Rehearsals with one of the Democratic Party's best speech coaches clearly paid off, allowing him to internalize the text and focus on conveying the emotion of the words with grace and spontaneity.
The mingled seating of Democratic and Republican members of Congress, a symbolic show of a renewed commitment to bipartisanship, eliminated the tribal practice of one party sitting on its hands while the other stands and applauds, and it was an immense benefit to the president. The viewing television public saw a stream of cut-aways framing prominent Democrats and Republicans, side-by-side, clapping for the same words. The speech itself transcended party lines as well, including nearly ninety percent that could have been penned by a GOP leader -- or by Bill Clinton, at his center-grabbing best. For the tens of millions of Americans who want Beltway residents to get along and get things done, it was the apex of bipartisan promise since the aftermath of September 11, 2001.
As the president declared in his speech, there will be tough political fights ahead. Tuesday's feel-good tableau was fueled by well-crafted words that are, in the end, just words. But by returning to his rhetorical roots -- as a progressive who believes America can meet its challenges only by working across partisan lines and rejecting tired old politics and extremist demands -- Obama harnessed the momentum he has had following his December bustle and Tucson leadership to achieve a soaring State of the Union.
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