If you think of this State of the Union as the third act of a trilogy—the first being a surprisingly productive lame-duck session of Congress, the second his Tucson speech that appealed to our better angels—what President Obama gave us Tuesday night was worthy and workmanlike, crafted to steer right down the middle of a divided country, a political exercise more than an inspirational one.
He stuck to what he’s been doing since the election, stressing jobs and competitiveness and the investments in education, innovation, and infrastructure to create those jobs now and into the future. “This is our Sputnik moment,” he declared—though the big idea he has been searching for, and that the country is yearning for, did not materialize in this speech. Instead, it was a compendium of projects that he deems suitably futuristic, like high-speed railways, which Republican governors have been axing because it costs too much.
Obama likes the phrase “win the future,” which appeals to America’s competitive spirit as the realization takes hold that China and India are overtaking us in the global marketplace. This was a very business-friendly speech, and there was plenty for Republicans to love. He pledged to bring corporate tax rates down. He endorsed medical-malpractice reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits, a familiar GOP refrain, and after celebrating the overturning of the ban on "don’t ask, don’t tell," he said that college campuses should bring back ROTC, that it’s time to leave the old fights behind.
I loved the ribbons that everyone wore in honor of Gabby Giffords, but I missed the partisan theatrics now that there’s a buddy system in the seating, and Republicans and Democrats mingled. In the final minutes of his long oration, Obama saved what would otherwise have been a mostly flat and uninspiring evening with his reminder that the American Dream is alive and well or he wouldn’t have been standing where he was, with a working-class kid from Scranton sitting behind him, and the new speaker of the House someone who started out sweeping the floors of his father’s Cincinnati bar.