Overall this was an impressive and surprising speech, which accomplished the main goal of a "Year Four" State of the Union Address in a different way from what I had foreseen. Those goals include putting the political opposition in an awkward position in the run-up to the presidential election, and the speech did more of that than I expected.
A "Year Four" SOTU is usually only the third State of the Union address a president gives. When a new president has been elected in November, there's typically no SOTU address the following January. The old, outgoing president has no further program to talk about, and the new one has said his piece in his inaugural address. Even though it seems—at least to me!—as if they're always happening, in fact we get only three SOTU addresses every four years, or seven of them in the eight years of a re-elected president's two term.
At the beginning of Year Four for a first-term incumbent, which was the setting for Obama's speech this week, the purpose of the SOTU address is less to advance a program than to build a case. Although Year Four presidents, including Obama, often go through the motions of urging action on various bills, they know that very little is likely to occur—especially when, like Obama, they face a divided or opposition-controlled Congress. (It doesn't say much good about our legislative system that for fully one year out of four it's essentially out of commission, as all members of the House concentrate on re-election, along with a third of the Senators. But that's life.) These legislative "goals," like nearly everything Obama mentioned in this speech, really should be thought of as "for example" illustrations of the larger case the president is making for another chance at governing. In reality, everything a new president does from the day after his original election is done with an eye toward the re-election run. But starting in Year Four, that "four more years!" case is out in the open and legitimate. I don't think that the leitmotif slogan of this speech—"Built to Last"—is really going to make it as the slogan of the Obama 2012 campaign. (And for obvious reasons, they're not going to resurrect "Change We Can Believe In.") But the ideas and arguments in the speech do, I think, set up the main themes Obama and his team will stress.
In a nutshell, that theme—the intended message of the speech—is: I am a reasonable guy, still hoping to be a uniter rather than a divider, and I have a plan to deal with the trends that make us all worry about our economy and society. Also, I'm very patriotic—and if you think I'm weak or pussy-footing, go ask Osama bin Laden about that.
Remarks of President Barack Obama—As Prepared for Delivery
State of the Union Address
"An America Built to Last"
Tuesday, January 24th, 2012
As Prepared for Delivery -
Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow Americans:
Last month, I went to Andrews Air Force Base and welcomed home some of our last troops to serve in Iraq. Together, we offered a final, proud salute to the colors under which more than a million of our fellow citizens fought—and several thousand gave their lives.
We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world. For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country. Most of al Qaeda's top lieutenants have been defeated. The Taliban's momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.
These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness, and teamwork of America's Armed Forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They're not consumed with personal ambition. They don't obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.