Here are some immediate reflections on the politics and optics of the speech tonight. (I already commented below on the optics—quite literally—of the Republican response.)
1. Making nice. Obama continues to express his desire to mend Washington, work cooperatively with friend and foe alike, lead instead of bicker—the “deficit of trust” stuff. If that’s just rhetoric to put his Republican and conservative critics on their heels, fine. And I realize the president did give the Republicans the business for their obstinacy. But by now he must know that this makes for good rhetoric but is no way to govern if he hopes to get things done. Lesson 1 from Year 1: You’re going to have to this by yourself and with fellow Democrats, Mr. President.
2. Running to the hills. Good job calling out his fellow Dems and reminding them “not to run for the hills.” If he can say that publicly, he ought to say it far less politely in private.
3. Populism. Striking the populist tone worked to some degree, but I still think he has not properly explained (a) why any healthcare reform needs to happen simultaneously, no less before, doing jobs and stimulus; and (b) he seemed to fizzle as he got to the laundry-listing section in the middle, in terms of the investment programs and initiatives. On the other hand, attacking the banks seems to be quite popular, and working.
4. Tone. I can’t quite put my finger on it because his literal tone and volume seemed to change at different points, but he seemed less bellowing, less thundering tonight. Maybe I was too busy cutting-and-pasting clips in the liveblog post, but it just seemed quiet at moments—both Obama’s projection and the reactions in the chamber.
5. Throwaway. The military and foreign policy section was mostly a throwaway section at the end. You can’t give a SotU speech without mentioning defense and foreign policy, and there was nice stuff in there about vets. But the truth is that all the wind-up, focus and discussion in the weeks leading up to tonight led us to expect a mostly domestic-themed speech, and that’s what we got.
6. Educator-in-chief. It’s very, very hard to explain how budgeting works, how deficits and debts work, and it was nice to see Obama try to explain these things. He obviously did so with the intent of twisting the knife in Republican backs about the deficits they handed off to him. But if you are a president who claims to want to fix how politics works in Washington, you are going to have to educate the public about how politics isn’t working at present. People are familiar with partisan rancor and bickering, and they know we are spending more than we raise.
7. Healthcare. It’s hard to ignore the fact that the healthcare discussion was more or less shoved into the middle. He didn’t want to start or end with it. I continue to believe that healthcare cannot be sold to businesses and the insured by telling sad tales about the un/underinsured. I wish Obama would make a healthcare argument about American business productivity and efficiency, so I remain disappointed on this front—but this is my own pet peeve.
8. Follow-up. The president flies to Florida tomorrow for a visit. In Tampa he and VP Joe Biden “will announce $8 billion in Recovery Act awards to lay the groundwork for a nationwide high-speed rail system that will create jobs and transform travel in America.” So I suspect we are going to get a series of follow-on demonstrations and visuals to echo the jobs, jobs, jobs, recovery, recovery, recovery theme from tonight.