Obama's Bait and Switch

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Obama's actions, while relatively modest, collectively amounted to an outpouring of frustration Larry Downing/Reuters

It wasn't the speech we were told to expect. When President Obama walked into the well of the House chamber, all expectations were that it would be a combative address, brimming with defiance toward Republicans who have repeatedly stymied his agenda. He'd talk about wielding executive orders and other unilateral actions like nunchucks and brass knuckles.

But it didn't turn out that way. Obama delivered a much more genial address, one that suggests he might see a way to boost his low poll numbers.

It's telling that the two most memorable moments of the speech were the two silent thumbs up that were offered by the president to House Speaker John Boehner for rising from the son of "a barkeep"—a lovely and once common word—and to Corey Remberg, the Army Ranger whose head was laden with shrapnel from a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. The tip of the hat to a hero in this annual speech has been standard fare since Ronald Reagan. Most are quickly forgotten—and clearly designed to tick off an interest group—but Remberg's disfigurement and spirit were so compelling that he got the longest applause of the night.

The closest Obama came to being combative was his vow to veto a bipartisan plan to ratchet up sanctions on Iran, and that was as much a shot at New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez as it was at John McCain. For most of the speech Obama offered the outstretched hand, and his talk of unilateral actions seemed more of an afterthought than a threat. He encouraged business leaders to pay their workers more and spoke of his vague plans to help men of color: "And I'm reaching out to some of America's leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing especially tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential." In an unusual twist, he encouraged governors and mayors to raise their minimum wages, even if Congress does not. There was mention of the minimum wage bill stalled in Congress, but rather than strike an angry tone, Obama acknowledged Tom Harkin and George Miller, the bill's authors, who are retiring this year. The two, seated together, laughed and cheered. Fist-bumps rather than fisticuffs all night long.

And though the pre-game chatter about executive actions was overblown, it was surprising how upbeat Obama was, even cocky. His mention of the health care bill was to tout its successes and make no apology for the pathetic rollout of HealthCare.gov. He brought up unemployment insurance and Congress's failure to renew it, but there wasn't a lot of discussion of the economy's ills. In the past, Obama hit cautionary notes about the economy. Now, not so much.

"This can be a breakthrough year for America," he said. True, but the breakthrough could be Republicans taking the Senate and Obama seeing his appointments shot down, his ideas left stillborn. The number of investigations driven by Republican-led committees could make Obama's last two years a Clintonesque headache of irritable subpoenas.

When he first ran for president, the multicultural son of Hawaii presented himself as a historically transformational figure who could bring people together in D.C. and around the world. Life turned out to be tougher, of course, but Obama has evolved into a more normal political figure, one who sells a better life, and whacks his opponents. He's less ambitious now—fight for what he can, go unilateral if he must. It's a long way from the Hope posters of 2008, but does have the virtue of realism. It's less heady to go from "we must be the change we seek" to tax repatriation—a rare bit of common ground between Democrats and Republicans—but constraining his vision and adapting to political realities could help Obama politically. By aiming lower, he might get more done, and find the last two years more pleasant than the previous two.

All State of the Union addresses could be called "The Night of a Thousand Segues." They're always laundry lists of proposals, with bumpy transitions from one to the next. This speech joined a long, forgettable list of disjointed addresses, but it least, for Obama, it offered him a way forward.