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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.

Also in On Leadership:

Leadership report card on the State of the Union: What's Obama's grade?

By Jena McGregor

 |  January 26, 2011; 9:48 AM ET |  Category:  Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Rahm Emanuel: So close, so far | Next: If business should invest during tough times, why not government?


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Not a mention in the SOTU on possible changes to make Congress less dysfunctional.
And nary a mention of that omission in the press - our hopelessly distracted press.
Must have been in the too hard box. Sit down and shut up Mr. Udall. Fair Elections Now Act. Never heard of it.
So lets reorganize steerage on this ship while we stoke the boilers.
We can make NY in record time.

Posted by: steveandjanereed1 | January 28, 2011 10:21 AM

A yawner for sure...when you don't have a leader who takes a stand on issues but rather "feels strongly both ways" so as to appease everyone, you have the typical indecisiveness we've come to expect from Obama. "Leaderless in America" theme continues while "Amateur Hour" goes on unabated. 2012 will complete the reset started this past November. OTO..one term Obama assured.

Posted by: powerange | January 27, 2011 8:21 AM

In the words of the great American poet, you can't start a fire without a spark.

Posted by: dkp01 | January 26, 2011 1:59 PM

The President's speech was well done and offered the nation an insight into where he feels we should go. It was a vision of a nation re-tooling itself for the 21st century. The response from regular citizens has been extraordinary so maybe we should trust them and not the pundits.

The Republicans have stated no vision (except to celebrate the founding fathers over and over again - that is not a forward looking view!) and keep on stating we are spending too much. That is true but how should we smartly deal with it. They are too quick to exempt Defense (25% of the budget)from any sane look and want to keep the tax break tap flowing freely running into large corporations and the very wealthiest of our citizens. How can that be a sane approach even if they repeat over and over and over again.

Who do you think will make the nation more competitive given what we know about the world today?

Posted by: FoundingMother | January 26, 2011 1:49 PM

I really don't see where this opinion is comming from. The speech was not only electrifying, but perhaps overly so (lacking on details and tough choices). Maybe "inside the room", attendees prefer boisterous cheering within their party; but, outside the beltway most of us are turned off by rah-rah politics. My heart swelled to see individual congressmen show bi-partisan enthusiasm.

Posted by: skeptik3 | January 26, 2011 1:26 PM


Looks like you are off with your list to good start at writing a needed government regulation to make abortions safe and sanitary for women yet restricted to legal ones within our current laws. He was arrested for a reason: he was not following the current law.

Posted by: FoundingMother | January 26, 2011 1:10 PM

Maybe Obama didn't discuss abortion because of the abortionist in Philly who is being charged with murder. Just a thought. Oh, btw, for those who missed it:

"...after officials raided his abortion business following the woman’s death and discovered a “shop of horrors” filled with bags of bodies and body parts of deceased unborn children and babies killed in infanticides.

Authorities searching the facility last year found bags and bottles holding aborted babies scattered around the building, jars containing babies’ severed feet lining a shelf, as well as filthy, unsanitary furniture and equipment.

Gosnell, who used a method of live birth abortion to birth babies and snap their spinal cords with scissors, was arraigned and held without bail and two of Gosnell’s unlicensed and untrained staff, Adrienne Moton and Lynda Williams, who allegedly assisted him in the gruesome killings at his Women’s Medical Society abortion business were also arraigned and held without bail."

Posted by: Azarkhan | January 26, 2011 12:15 PM

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