SOTU: Not much fire, but plenty of potential for sparks
This was a different kind of State of the Union speech, the TV pundits repeated again and again as President Obama wrapped up at the podium Tuesday night. Long on vision and (somewhat) shorter on kitchen-sink speechmaking, commentators waxed on and on about Obama's more-thematic-than-usual speech, which didn't try to give every single political issue a nod. Rather than dwell on individual policy ideas and achievements--though he certainly spoke about many of them--the President sought to energize and inspire listeners about how the country was going to "win the future" through investments in innovation, education and infrastructure.
So if that's the case, why did the speech often sound so tepid?
Maybe the wind came out of the president's sails a bit when he heard that the speech had been leaked before the start of his address. And his highly praised emotional speech in Tucson after the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords was certainly a tough act to follow.
But what really took the electricity out of the room were two things. For one, the bipartisan seating arrangement, as well as the recent push toward civility, left the applause less spirited than usual. Congressmen and women had to decide for themselves whether to respond, rather than following the lead of their nearby colleagues to join in the applause or opt out and sit in silence. The vibe was subdued, with both sides trying not to clap too enthusiastically for their own favorite ideas or appear too testy about the ones they opposed. As one talking head noted, Obama was unable to feed off the energy from the crowd as he did in Tucson or on the campaign trail, and the more restrained audience led to a more sober speaker.
The other culprit was his near complete avoidance of controversial topics. Gun control was not discussed. Neither was abortion. Social security got barely a mention. When he did steer into political kindling, he quickly reversed course, throwing water on the fire by telling the other side something they wanted to hear as well. In the sentence following his call to stop expelling undocumented students "who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents," he comes out swinging about the importance of fighting illegal immigration.
Most of the president's speech focused on topics few could argue with. Education. Innovation. Patriotism. A better tomorrow for our children. Science fairs, for goodness sakes. Driving right down the center with topics no one could oppose may make for good politics, but not electrifying oratory.
Still, Obama's speech was the right one for him to make. It was positive, forward-looking and hopeful--all qualities a leader should display in such a speech--even if it was short on specifics and long on motherhood and apple pie. It likely won't be one for the history books. There were few memorable lines, such as Clinton's "the era of Big Government is over" or Bush's "axis of evil." How much it really inspired people with enthusiasm to "win the future," "become a teacher," or go forth and "do big things" is highly debatable.
But if it warmed up independent voters--who by their very nature, are a little tepid themselves, pragmatic about lightning rod issues and avoidant of extreme positions--Obama's speech did exactly what he needed it to do. There may not have been much fiery oratory. But if sparks flew between Obama and moderate Americans, it will be a memorable speech either way.
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January 26, 2011; 9:48 AM ET |
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