It was a strange State of the Union Address—mixing emotional tugs on the heartstrings with anodyne rhetoric that made it seem like everyone from Barack Obama to the angriest Tea Party Republican was bored with the annual exercise. The speech had no over-arching theme save (yawn) America’s enduring greatness. There were hard-hitting sentences and paragraphs, but no dramatic policy proposals nor even bold, if unattainable, dreams. The State of the Union address was unlikely to anger anyone whether it was financial titans fearing economic Kristallnacht or Bashar al-Assad.
For all of Obama’s rhetorical gifts, it was another speech that was mangled beyond recognition by the State of the Union sausage grinder. Before the speech, the agony of White House wordsmiths struggling with the State of the Union was memorably captured by Jeff Shesol, a Bill Clinton alum, who described the standard text as “written by a flash mob—a sudden aggregation, inside and around the speechwriting offices, of White House aides, Cabinet secretaries, pollsters, and college roommates of the president.”
All day Tuesday was the province of the SOTU Preview-Industrial Complex, which, despite the efforts of White House spin, was primarily dominated by the debunkers. The pundits and the political scientists all pointed to Obama’s low approval ratings, the failure of his exhortations (“I urge this Congress…”) in last year’s address and the limitations of the presidential bully pulpit.
In fact, there had not been such low expectations for an Obama speech since the first day that he stood up in class at Punahou School in Honolulu. All that was missing during the run-up to the State of the Union was the joke headline (which accidentally got into print) that the Boston Globe slapped on an editorial about a 1980 Jimmy Carter speech: “Mush from the Wimp.” Six years ago, it would have shocked Democrats, who thrilled to Obama’s oratorical gifts in the 2008 campaign, that any prime-time speech that this president delivered might ever be likened to porridge.
But the Obama of the 2004 Convention speech and the 2008 campaign never entirely disappears, even though that orator sometimes goes into hiding. When someday they run the highlight reel of Obama’s greatest hits at his presidential library in Chicago, tonight’s tale of the bravery of Army Ranger Cory Remsburg will be part of that rhetorical cavalcade. It was hard not to grow misty in a Reagan-esque sense over Sgt. Remsburg’s patriotism, his suffering and his uplifting recovery. But it was also telling that the most memorable portion of Obama’s State of the Union address had nothing to do with policy, unless, of course, you count America’s upcoming withdrawal from an unwinnable war in Afghanistan.
Everyone is ready to talk politics now that the last bit of syncopated applause has died down in the House chamber and now that the last member of Congress has preened before the post-speech television cameras in Statuary Hall. So, to be blunt, how did Obama do politically?
To answer that question, it is worth remembering that most partisan Democrats and virtually all red-meat Republicans watching the speech at home are irrelevant when it comes to second-term politics. So are virtually all members of Congress regardless of party.
For, in truth, the political significance of the State of the Union lay in how it played with the six constituencies that still matter to Obama:
The News Media
The best guess is that about 30 million Americans watched the speech live. (In 2013, when Obama was still basking in the post-inaugural glow, that figure was 34 million). As it is with all news events aside from the Super Bowl and celebrity wardrobe malfunctions during the Oscars, most Americans will get their impressions of the speech from brief news clips.
How It Played
It addition to the lengthy standing ovation for Sgt. Remsburg, there were also the kind of presidential lines that were deliberately crafted for uplifting morning-after sound bites: “I believe this can be a breakthrough year for America. After five years of grit and determined effort, the United States is better-positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on earth.”
John Boehner spent Tuesday evening sitting behind Obama as Speaker for one simple statistical reason: 27 million fewer Americans voted for Democratic House candidates in 2010 than voted for Obama in 2008. Turning out those vote-every-four-years Democrats is the White House’s best hope for avoiding a debacle in the 2014 midterm elections. And if there was an obvious political goal to the State of the Union, it was arousing these wavering Democrats.
How It Played
Two of the most effective moments in the speech seemed designed to appeal to this constituency. Playing the surprise-guest-in-the-balcony card, Obama pointed to Misty DeMars, an appealing mother of two boys, as a victim of Republican efforts to cut off extended unemployment benefits. And, always sensitive to women voters, Obama passionately denounced “workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode.”
Voters on the Fence
If the press makes one continual mistake in handicapping elections, it is to exaggerate the number of swing voters up for grabs in any race. But unlike unicorns and the Loch Ness monster, they do exist. Some of them are disgruntled Democrats, some are the last remnants of moderate Republicans and some are those rare human beings who actually mean it when they say, “I vote for the candidate not the party.”
How It Played
These were probably the target audience when Obama paused to remind the nation that House Republicans “shut down government” and tried to “threaten the full faith and credit of the United States.”
Congressional Republicans Willing to Make a Deal
As we have seen in the Senate on immigration and most recently in the House on funding the government, there are Capitol Hill Republicans who have come to understand that there are ten letters in “compromise” not four.
How It Played
What was startling was how little Obama did to advance the debate on immigration. He raced through the topic with boilerplate lines like, “Let’s get immigration reform done this year.”
According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, only 9 percent of the electorate believes that Obama should focus on foreign policy during the remainder of his presidency, Despite the national mood of “we’ve got trouble right here in River City,” every foreign policy nuance of Obama’s speech will be parsed from Damascus to Pyongyang.
How It Played
No one in the current Axis of Evil (Syria, Iran, and North Korea) would find much new in the Obama speech. But that would not prevent Assad and Company from cheering as Obama declared, “I will never send our troops into harm’s way unless it’s truly necessary.”
Reading the David Remnick profile of Obama in the recent New Yorker, it was easy to get the impression that the president is more concerned with the verdict of the future than he is with short-term political gamesmanship.
How It Played
No historical chronicler of the Obama presidency is apt to devote more than a few paragraphs to the 2014 State of the Union.
At the beginning of the Nixon administration, Attorney General John Mitchell advised reporters, “Watch what we do, not what we say.” If you forget Watergate and the other illegal excesses of the Nixon presidency, it is actually surprisingly good advice.
The future of the Obama administration in 2014 will not depend on words like the largely forgettable State of the Union. Instead, the Obama record will ultimately be judged based on how he uses the executive and foreign policy of the presidency in the face of a recalcitrant Congress.