Typically, the State of the Union is the worst sort of presidential address: a mind-numbingly tedious laundry list of foreign and domestic initiatives, with another list of feel-good or sob-stories appended to the end for easy applause. Tonight's speech is worth watching, however, just for the chance to see how Obama deals with the setbacks of the last week. Based on the lines that Robert Gibbs previewed on the morning shows, I expect Obama to focus heavily on the economy while denouncing the "special interests" that stand between the American people and the "change" they voted for in November 2008.
This is absurd, of course--special interests have flourished under Obama. They cut deals on cap and trade and health care and the bank and auto bailouts. They jump at the chance to funnel stimulus money to their own pet projects. Every time the president utters the phrase "green jobs," a lobbyist begins to drool. When Obama said health care stood at the precipice, he wasn't kidding. What stopped the momentum wasn't backroom deals. It was public opposition. If the White House still can't figure that out, we can expect one, two, many more Massachusettses in November.
That said, state of the unions rarely have any major effect on politics. Nor are they exemplary pieces of rhetoric. My memory is dusty, but I can only recall three famous lines from the last 14 years of SOTUs: Clinton's "era of big government is over," and George W. Bush's "axis of evil" and "addicted to oil." Let me know if I forgot any!
Still, Obama isn't known for catchy lines: "a new era of responsibility" stuck, as did the "new foundation," but that's a total of two for all of the many, many speeches, interviews, and town halls he delivered in his first year. His two best speeches, in my view, were on foreign policy. Both took place in December 2009: specifically, his address announcing the Afghan surge and his Nobel lecture.
Jonathan Cohn has an interesting post where he writes:
So can Obama pull off this trick? Maybe. As I’ve mentioned before, I never drank the Obama kool-aid. But that’s not because I didn’t like him. It’s because the qualities I saw in him--from hearing his 2004 speech and then reading his autobiography---seemed ill-suited for politics. He was clearly somebody who reveled in ambiguity and embraced contradiction, which is great if you’re a writer or intellectual but not so great if you’re trying to win votes in the world of thirty-second sound bites.
Or so I thought before the Wright speech. The easy approach to that controversy--the one, I’m sure, most political consultants would have advised--would have been a simple and apologetic disavowal of Wright. Instead, Obama seized the opportunity to offer a disquisition on American attitudes about race, in all of its mind-numbing complexity.
Somehow, the gambit worked. People paid attention. They respected Obama for it. And his candidacy survived.
Could the president do something similar tonight? He doesn't seem willing to make a course correction. What's more, the political situation in January 2010 is far different from March 2008. Obama is no longer a candidate to whom people give the benefit of the doubt. He has been president for a year. The public knows him. And while the public admires his character, it is divided on his job performance. One more speech won't be enough to change these judgments.
In addition, one reason the race speech was successful was that it received ridiculously over-the-top media accolades. One pundit actually compared it to Lincoln's Cooper Union Address. During the campaign, as Charles Krauthammer puts it, the media were so in the tank for Obama they needed scuba gear.
The media continues to favor the president. But nowhere near as much as they did in 2008--or even 2009. Why won't tonight's speech be as effective as the race speech? Easy. One man. Scott Brown.