By Dan Gerstein
(Cross-posted from Forbes.com)
Taking in the widely divergent reactions to and reviews of President Barack Obama's State of the Union address the day after, you might think those folks were listening to two different speeches. Well many of us were--in more ways than one. We're a deeply divided people with a bad habit of projecting our own biases and conflicting desires on our leaders and hearing what conforms to them. And Obama, seemingly reflecting his own internal tensions, responded in kind by delivering a profoundly contradictory address on almost all counts--structurally, thematically, tonally and substantively.
In that sense it was a particularly fitting speech for the moment--a perfect distillation of the state of our political union. But for that reason I suspect it was also the wrong speech for Obama (whose challenge is to change the status quo, not channel it) and, more important, for the American people (who, despite the mixed messages they may send, are looking for consistency and conviction from their president). I just don't see how the unity of purpose the president says he is seeking will come from the disunity of rhetoric he ended up offering to a fractured and unsettled polity.
I actually counted three distinct and disjointed speeches. The first was a lofty peroration that paid tribute to American resilience and deftly set the historical and political context for the speech. The second was a stirring culmination that challenged Washington to change its ways and reconnected Obama to his winning outsider campaign message. Sandwiched in the middle of those high points was a muddle of typical programmatic proposals and declarations: tactical bones meant to be thrown to the left, right and center and to check poll-tested boxes.
Early surveys show that some of these new prescriptions--including the economic centerpieces of the address--played well in isolation to the swing voters the White House needs to win back. But the key words there are "in isolation." I was struck by how disconnected the specific policies Obama discussed were--not only from the opening and close of the speech, but from one another. There was no overriding vision or narrative thread to hold these ideologically diverse ideas together and convince voters they are part of a larger coherent plan. Which is a significant reason why I think the new policy pieces had less immediate resonance than they might have--and why they will have little lasting value to the president.
We can already see early hints of this. A focus group of Nevada swing voters conducted by the left-leaning Democracy Corps liked what the president said on the economy, the deficit and banking reform. His ratings jumped 38 points on each from before the speech to after. But those shifters were still dubious about Obama's ability to deliver on those issues. Indeed, unlike most attributes that shifted during the speech, "promises things that sound good but won't be able get them done" remained very high (78% pre-speech to 74% after). The "shifters," the pollsters reported, are waiting for results. And while they see the Republicans as obstructing every Obama initiative, they nonetheless expect Democrats to pass major legislation with their large majorities.
For that to happen Obama will have to do more than reset his positioning and agenda, which he did with some success Wednesday night. He will have to reassert his powers of persuasion. Most immediately he must convince his own party to put aside its ideological disagreements and personal grievances to unite behind him. He must convince the reasonable wing of the Republican Party that he is serious about working with them on some big issues--the new math of the Senate and the growing electoral frustration that drove the election in Massachusetts demand it. And he must convince the broad middle that he can do more than talk a good game.
By that measure, Wednesday's dissonant speech was equal parts missed opportunity and confounding disappointment. Obama made several rhetorical and programmatic gestures of good will to Republicans. But whatever potential benefit he may have derived from those outstretched bipartisan hands was undermined and likely negated by the sharp partisan elbows he delivered with almost equal frequency. Not exactly the best way to put positive pressure on the "party of no" to act like the "party of go." The best evidence of that: the uniformly negative response by moderate GOPers and right-wingers alike. Many Democrats will say that's simply because the Republicans are intent on tearing down the president, and there's some truth to that. But Obama's partisan ping-ponging sure made it easy for them to play the victim and stay on the sidelines.
Much the same could be said for the schizophrenic tone of Obama's message to Congress as a whole. Obama made several seemingly genuine exhortations to hear the public's anger with Washington and rise above the usual politics to deal with the immense challenges of our time. But there seemed to be just as many instances of Obama hectoring and lecturing both his friends and foes in the room. Now most of us could hardly blame Obama for wanting to upbraid and call out this Congress for its incompetence and ineffectiveness. But given his depleted political capital, and the persuasion challenges he faces now, it's hard to see how he helped himself by using the carrots he was holding out to publicly slap his colleagues across the face.
There were a few other conflicting and confusing notes that I think added to the self-defeating score. The president insisted he was not walking away from health care. But it sure seemed that way, after he spent a negligible fraction of his speech talking about the issue that had consumed Washington for the past half year and refused to take a clear stand on what kind of bill he wants.
He said that a jobs bill was his top priority for the year. Yet he put far more passion in his calls for lobbying and earmark reform than he did in demanding Congress put a jobs plan on his desk (the weakest moment in the speech to me). The strongest parts of the speech were where Obama validated the public's frustration with the arrogance and politics as usual in Washington. Yet all his efforts to show humility and gain credibility--including the self-deprecating humor--rang hollow to many who could not get past all the self-referential and self-congratulatory parts of the speech.
The result? Obama produced more of a political Rorschach test than a game-changer. There were elements of a compelling speech that reminded many Obama supporters (myself included) why they fell for this phenomenal talent in the first place. My favorite was the section on global economic competitiveness and his emphatic assertion that he will "not accept second place for the United States of America." Those were the parts that many liberals chose to hear and cheer. Most conservatives fixated on the contradictions; my friend Pete Wehner, head of strategic planning at the White House under Karl Rove, called it one of the worst State of the Union addresses in modern times. And what of the volatile and valuable class of Independents? So far, based on early returns, the reviews seem as mixed and conflicted as the speech itself. They appear at best unmoved, at worst turned off.
That initial impression may prove wrong. Over time the cream of the speech may indeed rise to the top of the popular consciousness. But I tend to think that, to borrow from the words of another lanky Illinois senator, that a speech divided against itself cannot stand--and will not stick.
Gerstein is President of Gotham Ghostwriters and writes a weekly political column for Forbes.com
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