A Weaker Presidential Voice

Obama got his emotional crescendo on guns in an uneven speech.

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Standing in front of Congress, President Obama started off with a John F. Kennedy quote from 51 years ago—a reference to his own age, and an attempt to connect to Camelot in a generational passage.

Not a bad idea, and certainly his State of the Union speech had its moments. Next to his soaring second inaugural address just three weeks ago, however, it seemed like second best. Sorry, but it did not have the same inspired lift or tone. The president's voice sounded a bit weaker inside the chamber, his allies and enemies gathered round for this ritual.

[See editorial cartoons about Congress.]

He connected all the dots for his ambitious agenda, putting forward climate change, the sequester, immigration reform, and raising the minimum wage. He devoted perhaps a paragraph to foreign policy. Soldiers are coming home from Afghanistan, haven't you heard? The president tried to put a happier face on a "stronger" state of the union, according to the printed speech—but he said "strong" instead. He rounded up.

However, at the end, he resonated on gun violence, hitting the chord that brought the House down, saying none of this matters if we can't protect our children. He is not flinching from a fight over tougher gun control laws, in the wake of the Newtown school shootings. Many lawmakers were wearing green ribbons to honor families who lost loved ones to gun violence. He challenged the House and Senate to at least vote on tougher measures like background checks.

[Check out political cartoons about guns rights and gun control.]

Then Democrats started belllowing: "Vote! Vote!" during a standing ovation.

That gave the president the emotional crescendo, the cascade of shared convictions that he had been searching for all night. You have to admire his courage in confronting the gun lobby, the lion in the lobbyist forest.

The clock struck 10 and Obama was not yet gone, but feeling the love in roughly half the room as he shook hand after hand on his way out.

  • Read Robert Schlesinger on State of the Union firsts and other trivia.
  • Get a behind the scenes look at how a State of the Union address is written.
  • Read Mary Kate Cary: The Era of Big Government Is Back