The first populist speech President Obama ever gave to Congress was not a pretty thing. At the annual look in the mirror at the State of the Union yesterday, Obama firmly held the gaze--and the daze--of a deeply discouraged nation and offered up a smorgasboard of solutions.
To his credit, he left his poetical flights of prose at home and stuck to substance. Standing before both houses of Congress, he put forth hard-headed policy cures for what ails the American economy, all in the name of fairness. It took Obama too long to put his finger on this point of fairness--a few years too long. But if he keeps hammering home fairness to American workers and in tax code and to college students seeking the dream, then he can't lose this election. Policing Wall Street, buttressing the nation's infrastructure, re-employing those without jobs and saving the auto industry all sounded good, too.
Seated by the clock above the president, I saw the Republican senators and House members watch him with new respect. They were not so quick to diss him as a slender political opponent as in years past. Rather, they were sizing up the new moves of the guy in front of them. More than specifics, they were hearing a whole new tone from this young leader, clearly more crisp and determined, delivering his message with a fierce urgency to get things done. The stakes are higher now than ever for a sharpened message, and not only because it's an election year. After a season of the "Occupy" movement (which Obama did not mention by name), the theme of economic injustice was ignited in the political air.
Obama didn't act like he wanted to be friends with Republicans--a great leap forward. At great cost to his own political capital, he's finally learned the lesson that bipartisanship is for the birds in Washington. He brought up the debt ceiling debacle last summer: "Who benefited from that fiasco?"
Certainly not anybody in that chamber.
As a president who inherited two wars from George W. Bush, Obama reminded everybody that he ordered the successful SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. It's hard to take that away from a commander-in-chief. That foreign policy zenith was clearly going to serve Obama well at home, to enhance his status as a warrior.
Democrats left the chamber energized at the president's new-found feistiness. "That's the best State of the Union I've heard from him," said Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington. "It's the beginning of the campaign."
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