I certainly liked Obama’s State of the Union Address while listening to it. In a room dominated by Republicans, Obama was once again the adult in the room–the sensible one interested in governing and not bogged down in extremist ideology. His economic numbers provided real evidence of success, despite Republican obstructionism, and Obama was right in addressing the need to extend the benefits of economic recovery to more in the middle class.
The question is whether the speech, and Obama’s aggressiveness on policy matters, will make a difference matters beyond this week. David Corn summed up some of my concerns:
Barack Obama is very good at getting elected president (two for two!) and pretty darn good at policy (Obamacare; the stimulus; the auto industry rescue; Wall Street reform; ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; Cuba; immigration reform executive action; dumping DOMA; middle-class tax cuts; new EPA limits on emissions that cause climate change; banning torture; downsizing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and killing Osama bin Laden). But there’s one key piece of the job description where he’s fallen short: shaping the ongoing political narrative of the nation.
The president is the country’s storyteller in chief. And despite his inspiring powers of oratory (see Campaign 2008) and his savvy understanding of the importance of values in political salesmanship (see Campaign 2012), Obama, as his aides concede, has not effectively sold the nation on his own accomplishments, and, simultaneously, he has failed to establish an overarching public plot line that explains the gridlock in Washington as the result of GOP obstructionists blocking him on important issues where public opinion is in his favor. With his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, Obama had one last chance to take a swing at forging this narrative. Though he did adopt a muscular stance in presenting a forceful and vigorous vision—going on offense in the fourth quarter of his presidency, as his advisers have put it—the president let the Republicans off easy.
Throughout his presidency, as the GOP has consistently sought to block him, Obama has responded inconsistently. He often has pleaded for reason and looked to craft a deal—frequently (and justifiably) to prevent a hit to the economy. (This was the adult-in-the-room strategy.) At times, he has praised House Speaker John Boehner, while pointing to Boehner’s tea party wing as the cause of the partisan paralysis. And then he has occasionally—but not too often—flashed anger and slammed Republicans for being irresponsible and reckless (the debt ceiling scuffle, the assorted government shutdown showdowns). He has not presented a steady and stark tale in which he stars as the fighter for the middle- and lower-income Americans who are stymied repeatedly by always-say-no Republicans aligned with plutocrats, the gun lobby, corporate polluters, and other foes of progress. Consequently, he has often borne blame for the sluggish economy and the mess in Washington, with the Democratic Party paying the price for the dips in his approval rating.
For this to have meaning, Obama must stick to pushing his views, and the Democratic Party must be there behind him. The reaction of the Democratic Party has been even more inconsistent than Obama’s. Here’s what I thought during the speech:
— Ron Chusid (@RonChusid) January 21, 2015
Of course the general election is an entirely different ballgame than the midterms, and Democrats who thought there was benefit in running as Republican-lite in a midterm election where the big contests were in the red states might act more boldly. Or maybe not.
On the other hand, maybe we should just be happy that Obama had a good speech, the positive results from his policies are real, and that the speech was well accepted. Beyond that, I’m not sure that a State of the Union address ever really matters all that much.