President Obama’s state-of-the-union speech is a reminder that most of what we’ll remember was how it was said, not what was said. Smart beginning, high energy, powerful ending. It was brilliantly crafted to make the most of a not-great situation: low approval ratings (37%, 40%), Congressional resistance to doing almost anything, election-year jockeying, the cusp of lame duck status.
To start, the President was able to undercut in advance the GOP personal response by hailing the ordinary individuals who make America strong: a teacher, an autoworker, an entrepreneur, a farmer, fathers and mothers. Only then did he go into the nation’s accomplishments: rebounding this; growing that; but no eye-glazing metrics. Who could argue?
His energy was high; his delivery easy. He offered optimism that 2014 could be a break-through year. Mindful of Washington realities, he put forth no grand policy proposals. What he offered was modest in scope with few, if any, details. Except for immigration, few legislative initiatives seem likely. He’ll make a tweak here, a regulation there, by executive order, where he can. (So far, he has done relatively little by executive order.)
By keeping to broad themes, he often put his critics in the chamber in the position of having to applaud, even though months down the road they’ll fight him tooth and nail on details. It was all about speeding up growth, expanding opportunities and helping move people into the middle class.
Cleverly, in extolling examples of the American dream, he spoke of John Boehner, the “son of a bar-keep,” who rose to become Speaker of the House. Boehner, for his part, turned from his usual orange to bright red. Boehner and other Republicans were drawn to applaud well over a dozen times, sometimes joining standing ovations – for our armed forces, for veterans, for Israel, for the U.S. Olympic team. How could they not? They clapped for Obama’s assertion that “no one who works full time should have to raise their children in poverty.” Boehner sat on his hands, naturally, when Obama moved on to talk about raising the minimum wage. But time and again, the President’s language was so broad that few, if any, might dare not to embrace it.
The conclusion of the speech was masterful. The President welcomed Army Ranger Cory Remsburg, whom he had met at a D-Day celebration before Remsburg had been nearly killed by a massive bomb in Afghanistan. It was his tenth deployment. Since then, he has had dozens of surgeries; painful rehab; partial blindness; paralysis; years of grueling work to be able to walk again. When Remsburg and his caregiver father stood, they received the longest, most emotional standing ovation of the night. And then, deftly, Obama observed that Remsburg is a reminder that for 200 years progress in America has never come easily.
Masterfully, Obama repeated the metaphor, built the emotion, spoke again of hard work, expanding opportunities, fulfilling the American dream, and, just in case anyone had missed his point, concluded with the rousing reminder that “if we work together; if we summon what is best in us, the way Cory summoned what is best in him, with our feet planted firmly in today but our eyes cast towards tomorrow, I know it’s within our reach. Believe it.”
For a speech that was small bore in policy terms, it exemplified how an occasionally brilliant orator, backed by excellent speech writers, can pull off a stunning presentation, painting an aspirational picture of what can be achieved in our dreams if not in the workaday political world of gridlock, partisanship, pettiness and persistent personal animosities.
It was a shining moment, but just a moment. Now comes the hard part.
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