Three quick takeaways on President Obama's State of the Union address, and one on Marco Rubio's reply.
First, the president did a good job in taking his critics head on. Two big criticisms that are frequently leveled against the president are first that he is uninterested in dealing with fiscal issues and second that he has—again—turned to pet liberal issues instead of maintaining his focus on meat and potatoes jobs issues. He devoted the first big policy chunk of his speech to dealing with the deficit and setting the terms on which to do it—he again pushed his balanced approach to dealing with the deficit, pairing modest changes to Medicare with greater tax revenue and other spending cuts.
Perhaps his most potent line in this area was actually an ad lib. "Why is [it] that deficit reduction is a big emergency justifying cuts to Social Security benefits, but not closing loopholes?" he asked, in a line which was not in the prepared remarks E-mailed out by the White House beforehand (hat tip to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee's Adam Green for noting it). This neatly illustrates the intellectual incoherence of the GOP's fiscal position—either it's an all hands on deck crisis (a "moral imperative" in the words of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan), in which case everything has to be on the table, or it's not, in which case you can rule out tax hikes. You can't say it's a moral imperative but not so much as to allow for tax hikes.
On the economy, he did a good job of framing many of his policy proposals as being about job growth and economic security. And he explicitly devoted the second major policy chunk of the speech to that topic.
Which brings me to my second point. He was smart in the way he framed key issues. Again, start with the fiscal issues. Discussing the sequester, Obama said that "in 2011, Congress passed a law saying that if both parties couldn't agree on a plan to reach our deficit goal … a trillion dollars' worth of budget cuts would automatically go into effect this year." Note the phrasing "Congress passed a law." This is a clear pushback on the GOP meme that the sequester is something Obama foisted on the country all by himself. If you listen to many Republicans, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, you'd think they had nothing to do with the sequester, when in fact they overwhelmingly voted for it. He also put a marker down on the prospect of a government shutdown—a prospect some in the GOP, including in the leadership, have openly discussed and even pined for—warning Americans that the idea is abroad once again.
Other examples of clever framing: placing the Violence Against Women Act in the context of economic security ("We know our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace, and free from the fear of domestic violence.") and tucking marriage equality into the national security section ("We will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal benefits for their families—gay and straight.")
Finally, easily the strongest part of the speech—and the strongest moment in any State of the Union address in recent memory (admittedly not a high bar)—was his repeated exhortation that Gabby Giffords, the Newtown families, the Aurora families, and so many other victims of gun violence "deserve a vote." It was an electrifying moment as he whipped the crowd up.
And one quick thought on Rubio's response: He did about as well as he could hope to, which is to say that his speech will be quickly forgotten … except, perhaps, for his lurch for a bottle of water. But give the guy a break, extremism in defense of liberty is thirsty work.