President Obama did what so many of his predecessors have done in his State of the Union speech: He grabbed hold of the “future” and ran with it.
In what he said and how he said it, it was a speech entirely mindful that the Republicans have a House majority and a filibuster-check on the Senate, but also aware that GOPers would be suspicious of the rhetoric and pounce on the policy. They did.
But Obama also was delivering a pep talk. He tried to project optimism, certainly when it came to America’s ability to get out of the recession and compete in the world economy, but also when it came to leaving Iraq and the far more dubious prospects in Afghanistan. He talked of the “American family” and “innovation” and exceptionalism, and of not trading American politics, as messy as it can be, with any other country.
By contrast, in his response, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was more dire and downbeat, albeit he had a rather thankless task and certainly did better than some of his predecessors. The Tea Party response from Michele Bachmann was out and out distracting, not for what she said, which was predictable, but by the way she delivered it. She looked not right at the camera but just off to the side.
In invoking the message of “win the future,” ambiguous as it may be, Obama is seizing what has been a potent political strategy. He’s trying to stake out a sunnier vision of the country’s prospects after one of the most anxiety-ridden midterms in recent history.
Ronald Reagan faced significant midterm losses in 1982, only to bounce back, as the economy did, with his message of “morning in America” in 1984. Bill Clinton was labeled the “incredible shrinking president” after his drubbing in the 1994 midterms, but handily won reelection with the “bridge to the 21st century.” Each benefited from a lack of vision on the part of their opponents — Walter Mondale and Bob Dole — along with economies convincingly on the upswing.
There are differences. Obama sounded Reagan-esque not only in the spirit of some of his rhetoric but in the jokes he said. The “salmon” quip was at the expense of big government, as was a dig at TSA “patdowns.” Unlike Reagan, of course, Obama doesn’t think the government is the enemy, just that it needs to be more efficient. Obama also sounded like Clinton the centrist, anxious to seize the high ground. But unlike Clinton, Obama will spend the next months defending a divisive healthcare bill.
Unemployment this year and next promises to be stubbornly high, and it’s way too early to know if Obama can maintain the message. His 2012 campaign may be much more traditional than in 2008, with a greater challenge in invigorating grassroots activism or, given the media environment, getting people to listen.
But as Republicans look for deep cuts and shout about spending, Obama is banking that he’ll at least be the friendlier face with the way forward.