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Obama’s Paradox of Choice

Watching Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last night, I was reminded of a book entitled The Paradox of Choice.

The thesis of the book is that when we have too many choices before us — perhaps you’ve been to one of those burger joints where you have to select among about 13 different types of cheese and 4 different types of ketchup just to order lunch — we spend too much time worrying about whether we are making the right decisions, which may lead to both reduced happiness and worse decision-making.

In his first two years in office, Barack Obama had a lot of choices to make — a lot of difficult choices.

He had, on the one hand, fairly large Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate, which were eager to pass major domestic programs in a whole range of areas: health care, climate change and financial reform, just to name a few.

On the other hand, his country was facing an economic crisis of a magnitude it had not seen in decades. It was also fighting two wars.

And though Mr. Obama’s approval ratings were high early on, he was still governing the same country that had elected a conservative Republican, George W. Bush, just four years earlier, and that had given him only 53 percent of its vote. (While his victory looked impressive on a shaded map, if just one out of every 13 of Mr. Obama’s voters had switched to John McCain, he and not Mr. Obama would be president now).

Rarely had the tensions among the various roles that an American president must play — head of state, commander in chief, party leader, chief executive — been quite so acute. Few presidents have been presented with such a menu of opportunities and risks as they took office.

Now, however, the stakes are probably much lower for him. With Democrats no longer in control of the House of Representatives, Mr. Obama will not be able to pass any major Democratic policy initiatives now, no matter how much political capital he might be willing to stake on them. Meanwhile, the Republicans control only the House, not the Senate. In contrast to Bill Clinton — who faced opposition control of both houses of Congress after his first midterm election — Mr. Obama may never have to use his veto pen.

This is not to suggest, exactly, that Mr. Obama’s job has become easy (the president’s job never is). But surely it has become easier in one regard: he has far fewer choices to make.

Discussing Mr. Obama’s remarks yesterday — I was looking at the advance text, but the speech neither gained much nor lost much in its live delivery — I used five adjectives in a Twitter post: smart, safe, centrist, vague, and optimistic. A lot of people noted in response that the same words could be applied to almost any State of the Union address.

That is undoubtedly true — and that is part of why, despite the intense media coverage they receive, State of the Union addresses almost never make a lasting difference in the polls. The public usually gives the remarks very favorable grades — as they also did in Mr. Obama’s case — and then promptly forgets about them by the time the Super Bowl is played.

But the last of the adjectives I chose — optimistic — probably merits some further thought. Yes, State of the Union addresses are usually optimistic, but this one was notably so, for everything from its patriotism to its bad jokes. This stands in contrast to some of the speeches that Mr. Obama has delivered in the past: his inaugural address, for instance, which spoke of “gathering clouds and raging storms,” was quite somber.

Optimism is also a feature of successful campaigns for the presidency, especially when an incumbent is running for re-election — think Ronald Reagan and his Morning in America commercials, or Bill Clinton’s use of the Fleetwood Mac song “Don’t Stop.”

Mr. Obama, of course, denied that his address on Tuesday had anything to do with the 2012 election. And there are many things that could get in Mr. Obama’s way between now and 2012: foreign policy crises, stock market crashes, terrorist strikes, sluggish economic growth. One of the bigger chances that he took in the speech was in projecting an optimistic tone, and in going three-quarters of the way toward declaring victory over the recession while about 14 million Americans remain out of work, according to the Department of Labor’s conservative definition of unemployment.

But here is the worry that I would have if I were a Republican. Precisely because there aren’t likely to be as many pressing political decisions before Mr. Obama in the next two years as there were in the last two, he will have more time to attune his message to independent voters and to concentrate on his re-election efforts, all the while branding them as bipartisan comity.

Since the Civil War, 73 percent of incumbent presidents who have sought re-election have won. Mr. Obama, freed from having to make quite so many difficult choices, may prove to be no easier to beat than they were.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.