Obama 2.0: Pressing the Reset Button
The Weekly Standard's Philip Terzian is quite right to describe the State of the Union as largely meaningless political theatre that's removed from political reality. That's why before he delivered the State of the Union speech on Wednesday night, I thought Barack Obama would do himself a huge favor by borrowing Steve Jobs' playbook.
Earlier in the day, Apple's CEO showed how to infuse a tired concept with sex and sizzle. The new iPad may rate only as an iterative improvement over a relatively old technology - one that heretofore most people did not care much about - but Apple's first tablet computer announcement generated breathless headlines all around the world. It sounded new, it sounded exciting, it sounded like, well, a game-changer.
Not everyone has the Steve Jobs touch, obviously, but during the presidential campaign candidate Obama came awfully close. During his race for the White House, he left a field of better-known, better-funded rivals in the dust largely on his ability to sell a hopeful vision of America.
In the last year, however, his oratory failed to resonate with the wider public. With Mr. Obama now suffering delays passing health care legislation, a sharp drop in the polls and the loss of the Democrats' super-majority in Congress, he needed to move the needle in what is the new year's first big political show.
No single speech would be enough to demolish the current logjam in Washington, but the president managed to strike the right chords, delivering his speech with fluidity and rhythmic emphasis. (Former Bush White House Communications Director and now CBS political analyst Dan Bartlett called it "a smart speech" in a conversation with Katie Couric.)
That's a fair reading. The text was chockablock with programmatic initiatives, offering a fiscally restrained, pro-business, low-tax message for the right as well as a populist and pro-healthcare insurance promise for the left. And then there was the central focus on jobs, a plank which got both sides of the aisle on their feet to applaud loudly.
But more than the specifics, Mr. Obama sought to restore faith in his presidency and he chose to infuse the text with some uncharacteristically passionate rhetoric. For a chief executive who has been dunned as being too remote and too cerebral, this was a reminder of the old Barack Obama. A sampling:
"I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone. Democracy in a nation of three hundred million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That's just how it is. Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths. We can do what's necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what's best for the next generation. But I also know this: if people had made that decision fifty years ago or one hundred years ago or two hundred years ago, we wouldn't be here tonight. The only reason we are is because generations of Americans were unafraid to do what was hard; to do what was needed even when success was uncertain; to do what it took to keep the dream of this nation alive for their children and grandchildren."
It's sort of sappy but part of a nice tradition. The president knows that his call for bipartisanship will fade by tomorrow. Folks like South Carolina Senator Jim (Waterloo) DeMint or Michael (Hip Hop) Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, sense this is a weakened presidency and political posturing isn't going away. (The president alluded to a "deficit of trust.") But that's Washington. Mr. Obama was talking as much to the wider audience watching on television as he was to Democrats and Republicans (and Independents) in Congress.
Earlier in the day Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic asked whether President Obama was again up to giving the speech of his life. We'll have to wait for the polling outfits to weigh in with a final tally, though I thought Mr. Obama was in good form. But that was the easy part. It's the follow-up that's always the hard stuff. Even as practiced a showman as Steve Jobs would tell him that.
More Coverage of Obama's State of the Union:
Obama Vows to Fight for Jobs
Full Text of Obama's Speech
Bob McDonnell: The Government Is "Trying to Do Too Much"
Poll: 83% of Viewers Approve of Obama's Plans
Photos: The State of the Union
Analysis: Bob Schieffer and Jeff Greenfield
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