Obama's State of the Union: Pleasing to Folks at Home, Not Pundits

Evan Vucci / AP

The pundits weren’t crazy about the president’s speech: too flat, they said, not enough applause lines, didn’t live up to the inspiration of Tucson.

Well, maybe. State of the Union addresses tend to be too long and too programmatic. But President Obama gave a grown-up speech, and folks at home tend to like those more than the scorecard-wielding pundits do.

He crafted a forward-looking theme that called on America to lift its global game—and with a 1957 metaphor (Sputnik) that fits nicely into headlines. There was a touch of Reagan-style optimism that belied our 9.4 percent unemployment rate (plus, it must be said, a touch of Clintonian long-windedness).

There was a bit too much emphasis on Google and Facebook and wireless and high-speed Internet and not enough on jobs. Yes, the point of talking about international competitiveness and education and electric cars and clean energy was to build an infrastructure to generate jobs—and maybe those are the only cards the president has left to play in a deficit-reducing environment. 

What was most striking—and was reinforced by the mixed seating in the House chamber—was a bipartisan air that went beyond the occasional nod to John Boehner. Even when the president deftly defended his health-care law—spotlighting a brain-cancer patient, James Howard, sitting in the audience—he offered a GOP olive branch of reducing paperwork. “Let’s fix what needs fixing and move forward,” he said.

In fact, there were whole chunks of the speech that could have been recited by Republican presidents. Obama came out for medical-malpractice reform, a GOP hobbyhorse roughly forever (although the devil is in the details). He called for a five-year freeze on domestic spending (not as deep as Republican cuts, but still). He talked about streamlining bureaucracy (“a government that lives within its means”) and modifying regulations that “put an unnecessary burden on businesses.” In fact, he offered little red meat for the left. The MSNBC panel, minus Keith Olbermann, was strikingly subdued.

The shorthand, of course, will be that Obama is moving to the center for 2012. But I think a lot of Americans will hear what he said as common sense, delivered in an inclusive way. Rather than propose a bunch of small programs, he said “we do big things”—but without attaching a big price tag. He knows that era is over.

The specifics of the speech will soon be forgotten, but the president set a tone that may leave a lingering impression—even when the suddenly civil lawmakers retreat to their corners and start fighting again.