Text below is the “as delivered” version, from the official White House.gov web site, here.
Before the speech, we knew that it would be another in the impressively-long series of “make or break” rhetorical performances for Barack Obama. The speech that first got him national attention, at the Democratic Convention in Boston in 2004, obviously made a huge difference for him but was not high-stakes in quite the same sense. No one outside Illinois had heard of Barack Obama at that point, and he was cruising to victory in the Senate race anyway, so if the speech had gone badly the only difference it would have made is … well, he wouldn’t be president now. But apart from that, he didn’t have much to lose.
But in the sequence that probably began with his late-night speech at the Jefferson-Jackson day dinner in Iowa, when it wasn’t clear that he could win the caucuses there; to his famous speech on race in Philadelphia in March, 2008, that rescued him from the Rev. Wright “God Damn America!” controversy; to his debate performance against John McCain in the summer of 2008, when McCain appeared to have made a shrewd choice by picking Sarah Palin; to his Joint-Session address about health care last fall that, for a while, reversed the poll numbers on his health plan – in that sequence, this was the next important entry. The previous two months and especially the previous two weeks had been very bad for Obama. Was it conceivable that, one more time, he could say something in a speech that would again get him (re-)started and give his initiatives another chance? Just on probabilities, weren’t we due for the big rhetorical flop, which would compound the “White House in crisis” / “What was all this ‘Yes we can!’ nonsense about anyway?” round of talk shows?
My reaction in real time was that he had done it again – pretty much. As a document, this State of the Union text is not likely to be studied for its conceptual or literary qualities – unlike, say, his “A More Perfect Union” race speech (link here) or even his Nobel Prize address (link here – or in Norwegian, here!) That is in the nature of State of the Union addresses. Few are ever memorable except for isolated lines – “axis of evil” (GW Bush, 2002), “the era of big government is over” (WJ Clinton, 1996) – and they are necessarily more like corporate annual reports than normal speeches, since they’re forced to cover the waterfront of domestic and international issues. Indeed, as we’ll see below, this one was almost “daring” in being as telegrammatic as it was in the world-affairs part of the discussion.
Still, by the test that usually matters about SOTU addresses – how they come across in real time, during the largest built-in TV audience a president usually has in the course of the year – I thought Obama did a good job. Details below, but in summary:
- He answered the threshold question of, “Is this man beaten? Is he shrinking before our eyes,” less by his explicit answers – “I will not quit,” etc – than with his calmly confident manner, from word one of the speech;
- He answered another question – what would a “populist” or “angry” or “fighting” Obama look like? – in the only way that could work in the long run, which was being “angry” on his own terms. A tremendous and underappreciated advantage for Obama, in my view, is that he is always the same guy. Things look good, things look bad, he’s provoked, he’s successful – but his tone on the stump and airwaves rarely varies more than 10 degrees in any direction. Some of his partisans complain about this when he doesn’t seem committed enough, fiery enough, etc. I think it’s the only way that an out-of-nowhere candidate, not to mention the first non-white candidate with a serious chance at the presidency, made himself seem “familiar” enough to win. It’s hard to think that there’s some “real” Obama we’re not seeing, when every view we ever have is of the same temperament. What this means in this speech: if he had sounded like John Edwards (at one time that would have been a compliment) about “two Americas” or like Bill Clinton in lay-it-on-thick pain-feeling, it would have rung phony.
- He gave his side talking-points for what they’ve tried to do, and still have to do, on the enmeshed questions of jobs/stimulus/health care/reform. In the eight days since Scott Brown’s victory gave Republicans their 41-seat “majority” in the Senate it was an open question of whether Obama would simply declare the health fight over for now. He re-told the strongest side of his case – if we don’t do anything, things will get worse – and laid down a marker for challenging Republicans to act as part of the responsible government again.
- He went on very long – at 70 minutes, about 10 minutes too long to my taste (will suggest specific cuts below) – but past experience suggests that audiences are more patient for SOTU detail than the pundit class generally assumes. AND:
- He did well on the minor stagecraft of the SOTU, including the always-amusing game of tricking the opposition into standing and clapping when they don’t really want to, or leaving them sitting in stony disapproval in ways that don’t look good. Details below.
- Three bonus stagecraft points: 1) No explicit “Lenny Skutnik” moment – calling out the citizens sitting in the First Lady’s box as exemplars of American virtue. The exemplars were there, but he didn’t name them. 2) Great dramatic moment with the Supreme Court, about which more later; 3) On the “purple” question, I am in the “it had to be on purpose” camp. Purple tie on Biden; purple outfit for Pelosi; purple dress for Michelle Obama. Just by accident they all have the color that melds red + blue? I don’t think so…..
What didn’t he do? Apart from some points of lax craftsmanship, noted as they occur, Obama played in three ways into the Fox News/GOP/Tea Party narrative. If you didn’t like these things about Obama before the speech, you probably like them less even now:
- “It’s always all about me.” A SOTU is institutional celebration of the presidency and by definition is all about the president, his standing, and his plans. A big Fox/Tea theme is that Obama is a narcissist. Simply by his bearing he conveyed the “I will fight” message. He didn’t have to say it that bluntly as often as he did.
- “It’s never my fault.” Whenever I point out, for instance, that America’s problems in Afghanistan have roots that reach back further even than Obama’s inauguration 12 months ago – or that the economy wasn’t so great as of January 20, 2009 -- I get mail from people who say how sick and tired they are of Obama’s “habit” of “blaming everything on Bush and Cheney” and the press’s complicity in that act of evasion. Obama laid out this background yet again, as he had to. Just pointing out the built-in dismissal mechanism from the other side. (So as not to interfere with the scientific purity of my results here, have avoided reading other people’s reactions to the speeches. But I can’t resist this exchange between two of my British-born colleagues on the “blame” topic. I am on the Sullivan rather than the Crook side of this disagreement.]
- “OK, so we know he can talk.” The more often Obama “saves himself” with a big speech, the more he conditions his opponents to dismiss that very achievement. “Well, of course he’s put on the big rhetorical show again. What else do you expect? But..” I heard this from someone watching the speech last night. I guess Obama should think: if you’ve got to have a problem, it’s the right kind to have.
On to the speech!