I haven't written one of these snap-judgment reactions to a speech in a while, so forgive me if this is a bit choppy and disorganized. As always, I am writing this before looking at other opinions of President Obama's just-completed State Of The Union speech. I feel this keeps my opinion unsullied by any sort of "groupthink" effect. Sometimes I read other speech reviews the next day and find I agree with them, sometimes not, but this way at least you know I'm not just regurgitating others' thoughts.
OK, well, I do have to regurgitate one thought, because it pretty much sums up all I have to say about Mitch Daniels' response to the president's speech. On PBS, right after Daniels spoke, center-right columnist David Brooks had a funny line: "That was actually the most charismatic Daniels ever gets." Wow. "No wonder this man didn't run for president this year," was my first thought, in response.
But we're not here to talk about the yawn-fest that was the response, we're here to talk about Obama's speech to the nation, right?
Overall, it was an excellent political speech, as political speeches go. For Barack Obama, however, the scale is always higher, since even on a bad day, Obama can give a better speech than most politicians not named "Bill Clinton." Measuring on the "Obama scale," the speech wasn't the best he's ever given, but it was at least in the top fifteen or twenty. Stylistically, Obama looked relaxed and confident throughout the entire delivery, and he hit his oratorical stride early on and only stumbled in the pacing a few times until the very end.
Getting beyond style, however, Obama knew full well that (1) this was a political speech at the beginning of his campaign, and (2) not much of anything he proposed is going to happen this year in Congress. This freed him up, somewhat, from the normal pressure these speeches are under to deliver a "laundry list" of policy ideas which actually have any chance of passing in the coming months. Obama did likely make some news with some new ideas, and he did get off into the weeds of specifics a few times during the speech, but overall he stuck to laying out a broad theme which will form the center of his re-election campaign. More on this in a moment, but let me go through my notes and single out a few snap reactions from the details of the speech.
Obama's opening and closing moments were by far the best of the speech. It's rare that a Democrat leads with foreign policy as his strongest feature, but Obama has certainly earned the right to do so. Reminding folks that we're out of Iraq and "this just in... Osama Bin Laden is still dead" (as it were) will be strong points throughout Obama's upcoming campaign, for good reason.
Likewise on the jobs issue, Obama did a good job contrasting the problems we faced when he took office with what's been going on for the past few months, as things finally start to look a bit better. Obama's record on getting manufacturing jobs back is a strong point he's never bragged enough about, because this is indeed a turnaround from a multi-decade decline. Likewise, his comments on border security -- Obama's record on this is far better than either George W. Bush's or Bill Clinton's was, which people may not realize unless Obama specifically points it out.
Obama hit all the big main themes he had announced for his speech well, rising and falling in tempo as the evening went on, but with at least one rousing moment during each. His new "alternative millionaires' tax" idea that nobody that wealthy should pay less than 30 percent of their income in federal taxes was likely the biggest newsmaker, and is a much more concrete way of putting this idea than he's ever done before -- for which he has Mitt Romney's taxes to thank (good timing, eh?).
Speaking of Mitt Romney, Obama managed to get a few shots across his bow, in direct response to the campaign rhetoric of not only Mitt but a lot of other Republicans as well -- in particular his line about how anyone who said America was in decline in the world "doesn't know what he's talking about." It's going to be hard for the pro-"American exceptionalism" Right to counter that simple statement effectively.
Obama did very well in his speech tonight thematically. He's better at this than most Democrats, but ever since he took office he has sometimes struggled to make the Democratic case of a vision for the future, and a path we all should take to get there. Obama has been improving on this front since about the middle of last summer. He's not completely at the pitch he needs to be for the campaign, but he's getting mighty close.
To put this another way: tonight, Obama laid out his vision for a brighter tomorrow. He did so in a very positive way, and also showed how the alternative Republican path is all pretty much back to the ways things were when the economy collapsed. The phrasing and language he used to do so was much better than he's ever managed at a State Of The Union speech so far:
"We've come too far to turn back now."
"I will fight obstructionism with action."
"We bet on American workers."
"America will always win."
Republicans are "out of excuses" not to move on immigration reform.
"I will not walk away..."
"Nation-building right here at home."
"I will not back down."
"That's not right."
His biggest line of the night, which he'll doubtless be repeating often, was the one about "no bailouts, no handouts, and no cop-outs." Together with his economic "fairness" argument, he's playing the populist card extremely well -- again, something he's not always been all that good at since he became president.
The final State Of The Union speech a first-term president gives is always a preview of his campaign for re-election. Tonight was no different than any other third-year presidential speech. Republicans might attempt to attack him on this front, but this truly is normal and not even worth commenting on.
The measure of such a third-year speech was how well it spoke to the Congress and the country about how the president sees the future. What would he do in a second term? What direction does he want to lead the country? What goals will he be working toward? How is his vision different from the people challenging him for his job?
Barack Obama laid all of this out tonight. His speech was forward-looking, confident, and well thought out. Whether you agree or not with his exact vision for the future, you left the speech at least knowing what Obama's vision is -- where he wants to take America both in the next year and, possibly, for the next four years after that.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant