By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
If President Barack Obama had a hard time with the State of the Union Wednesday night--if it made him seem small or did not come across well in every place--it is because his predecessor is such a hard act to follow. By predecessor I don't mean George W. Bush--who famously remarked that his lips were the place that words went to die--but Barack Obama the candidate, whose masterful delivery of soaring rhetoric propelled him past Hillary Clinton and John McCain and into the White House.
Obama was weakest at those points during the speech in which he was forced to defend his own actions and to talk about specifics. Or, if you prefer, when he had to talk like a president and not a candidate for office. In several places he appeared bogged down in the details of the policies he was announcing, when it was not so easy to draw contrasts or to present things as a choice between competing visions.
He also overpersonalized. Presidents--with the possible exception of Richard Nixon in the dying days of Watergate--do not talk about not being a quitter. It is a given they will pursue their aims until forced by political realities to move on to something else; in practical terms, they are not quite the same. Obama's raising of the idea--"I will not quit"--made him seem small, as did his continued references to the problems he inherited and the magnitude of the challenges met thus far.
Now, the problems facing the nation when Obama entered office certainly were serious. But it is dubious that he has led us through them--especially with unemployment at 10 percent. By continually invoking Bush and the Bush era, Obama seems as though he is trying to pass the buck for the bad and inflate the accomplishments that are good. It's not presidential either.
Where Obama was strongest was in those sections of the speech where he could most easily fall back on campaign-style rhetoric, as when he challenged Senate Republicans on the use of the filibuster. If they continue to push for a 60-vote threshold to pass legislation out of the Senate, he told them powerfully, "then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well." Of course that may simply have been a way to set the Republicans up to take the blame for the Democrats' failure to get their act together.
There were some ideas in the speech that both parties should embrace, such as the idea of reducing capital gains taxes on small business investments, offshore energy exploration, and the construction of more nuclear power plants--which will be a neat trick to pull off since Obama seems intent on killing the long-term nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain. On the whole, however, the speech was not even nearly equal to the elegance of his remarks on the campaign trail--and the president suffered by comparison.