President Obama’s first State of the Union address was a surprisingly prosaic affair for a man of his oratorical gifts. It was practical, concrete, and workmanlike, long on common sense and short on inspiration.
Still, the speech probably advanced several of Obama’s key goals, and it gave the country a chance to see how well he stands up to political adversity. By turns humorous, passionate and resolute, Obama gave the impression of a more seasoned leader who has not been knocked off stride by recent reverses, and who is rededicating himself to changing the way Washington works.
On the positive side, Obama conveyed empathy with working Americans who have lost jobs, houses and retirement savings, and reassured them that he will put jobs and economic recovery first in 2010. He identified with their anger over government’s rescue of the financial sector – “we all hated the bank bailout” — and reeled off a list of small-bore initiatives to boost small businesses and help middle-class families pay for childcare, retirement and college.
Although his major reforms — health care, financial regulation, the climate and energy bill – seem stalled, the President vowed to stay the course. In fact, he deftly parried conservative depictions of these as big government or archliberal initiatives, defining them instead as integral to the mission he was elected to accomplish: changing Washington’s dysfunctional political culture.
Crucially, Obama sought to resurrect his image as an outsider and insurgent bent of tackling America’s polarized and broken politics. He spoke of the “deficit of trust” in government and vowed to reduce the power of lobbyists and special interests, though was uncharacteristically vague on how he’d do that.
The president also seems to have recognized that, to win back disaffected independents, he will have to confront the forces of inertia in his own party as well as his political opponents. He issued a pointed challenge to liberals not to resist his efforts to impose fiscal discipline on the federal government, endorsed a deficit-reduction commission and threatened to veto profligate spending measures. And he bluntly called out Republicans for their blind obstructionism, adding that their ability to block legislation carries with it the responsibility to help solve the nation’s problems.
The most disappointing part of Obama’s address was on international affairs, a subject he finally turned to about an hour into his speech. The president duly noted that he is waging the fight against al Qaeda aggressively and sending more troops to Afghanistan. But he had little to say about the nature of the struggle that America is waging, at great sacrifice, against Islamist extremism. He seemed more passionate in affirming his pledge to get all U.S. troops out of Iraq, but said little about what they have achieved there, or whether our country has any interest in what happens there after we leave.
All in all, the president seemed to treat consequential matters of war, terrorism and foreign relations generally as an afterthought. This may suit the public’s present mood, but it didn’t reveal much about how this president connects America’s purposes abroad to what he wants to achieve at home.
And this underscores what was perhaps most striking about the speech. There was very little by way of an overarching vision or governing philosophy to link together the president’s many initiatives and commitments. There was no striking image like Reagan’s “shining city on the hill,” or thematic scaffolding like Bill Clinton’s “opportunity, responsibility and community” to invest Obama’s tenure with a deeper logic than serial problem-solving. Yes, Obama in his peroration repeatedly invoked “American values,” in an almost generic way. What’s still missing after a year in office is the master narrative of the Obama presidency, a story that is less about him and more about the next stage in America’s democratic experiment.