State of the Union Address Positions Obama for Re-election
Last night President Obama delivered his second State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.
I’ve had last night and this morning to reel in my thoughts; these are my first.
America the Great
A central theme, in addition to the speech’s title, “Win the Future,” seemed to be that America is an amazing place filled with people who can accomplish anything. Interestingly, considering that some Republicans describe the president as an apologist, Obama evoked American exceptionalism throughout the hour-plus speech.
Notable excerpts included:
“We are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea – the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny.”
“What America does better than anyone – is spark the creativity and imagination of our people. We are the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook. In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It’s how we make a living.”
“I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.”
Obama turned a long-standing Republican talking point into the centerpiece of his address, but did it in a way that was hopeful and optimistic — an interesting and deliberate choice.
The Spirit of Tucson: a muted tone
The recent Tucson shooting was more than an elephant in the room: Daniel Hernandez, the intern that saved Congresswoman Giffords’ life, attended the speech as a guest to first lady Michelle Obama. The entire room wore black and white ribbons to honor her and the other victims.
President Obama drew a unanimous standing ovation for the Congresswoman after acknowledging her “empty chair” at the start of the speech.
Considering the environment, in which more than 60 Democrats and Republicans sat side-by-side as a sign of unity, the mood and reaction from Congress was muted from beginning to end. There was no whooping or hollering, and the speech took on a non-partisan, conciliatory tone.
Obama poignantly remarked, “what comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.”
Obama the Centrist
Historically, State of the Union addresses act as policy blueprints to guide an administration’s legislative agenda. If precedent holds true, yesterday’s marked the start of the president’s re-election campaign.
Obama didn’t reference controversial policies like gun control, and hardly touched on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Instead, he defended his health care law while admitting it could be improved by Republican ideas such as medical malpractice reform. He called for massive reinvestments in education to keep America globally competitive while advocating a five-year domestic spending freeze. He appealed to both parties to eliminate tax loopholes, but cut corporate tax rates. And each issue, he framed around the economy.
Last night Obama channeled former President Clinton by positioning himself as the adult in the room — the moderate between both parties — defending Democratic priorities while simultaneously endorsing Republican initiatives.
Why it Matters
Public opinion polling on last night’s speech indicates that the president hit a grand slam. In a CBS morning poll, 91 percent of respondents approved of Obama’s policy prescriptions, and pundits lauded it last night well into the morning.
Whether or not Obama has an easier time governing, however, remains to be seen. The official Republican response by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) was markedly more negative than Obama’s address, as was the unofficial response by Tea-Party favorite Michelle Bachmann (R-MN).
And even during the speech, applauded by Republicans, GOP leaders including Speaker John Boehner sent out rapid response rebuttals from their congressional offices.
If nothing else, the speech embodied a new political reality: President Obama will not be easily defeated in 2012, and Republicans are taking notice.