Is Obama More Interested in Progress or Politics?

From his State of the Union address, five ways to judge the president's motives.

Republicans just seized control of Congress. President Obama's job-approval ratings just jumped. Gas prices and the unemployment rate are down. The gross domestic product is up. Now what? Democratic and Republican leaders face a choice: Begin governing together, or treat this moment like just another stop on a perpetual campaign.

Unfortunately, both the White House and the GOP-led Congress seem focused prematurely on 2016. Republicans are sending to the White House legislation they know Obama will veto. The president is pushing an agenda he knows Congress won't pass. It's a recipe for more gridlock, more fighting, more courting of donors and ignoring the needs of a country in transition.

In other words: The state of the union is the status quo.

If you're OK with that, stop reading. If you'd rather see progress than partisan gains, consider this: The State of the Union address is an opportunity for the president to chart a path toward consensus on issues like jobs, social mobility, education, infrastructure, energy, the debt, the environment, and terrorism.

Is Obama more interested in politics or progress? Here are five ways to tell from his address tonight.

The tone: Close your eyes, set aside your opinion of Obama, and objectively listen to a chunk of the address. Does he sound like a college professor—dismissive, dour, arrogant, and argumentative? Or does he sound like a preacher—inspirational, inclusive, optimistic, and humble? The latter approach is the mark of a great leader.

The substance: Obama's plan to raise taxes on the wealthy and big banks to help lower- and middle-class Americans hits a political sweet spot. Populism is rising across the political spectrum, which means there are more areas of potential agreement than the White House or GOP leaders may want to acknowledge. Does the president, like Bill Clinton in the 1990s, express empathy toward the conservative point of view? Does he nod to potential compromises? His liberal backers don't want him to give an inch. So far this year, Obama has stiffed the GOP agenda.

The pronouns: Count how many times Obama uses the words "I," "me," and "my." Compare that number to how often he says, "You," "we," "our." If the first number is greater than the second, Obama has failed. He needs to remember the lesson of Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign: Don't dismiss the 47 percent of Americans who disagree with him.

The shellacking: It wouldn't hurt to acknowledge the inconvenient truth that his leadership is the single biggest reason why Democrats lost the midterm elections in November. What lessons did he learn from the drubbing? How did those lesson shape his agenda? My colleague George Condon notes that every president of the past 100 years has been forced to address midterm defeats. Most have handled the situation with grace. Can Obama?

The sacrifice: Among George W. Bush's greatest mistakes was not asking Americans to sacrifice in the aftermath of 9/11.  He put the nation on perpetual war footing without demanding new taxes or national service. Obama inherited the so-called war on terrorism and doubled down on the mistake of thinking Americans are too cynical for sacrifice. He gives lip service to national-service programs. In his hands, proposals for higher taxes smack of class warfare rather than shared sacrifice. Can he appeal to our better angels?