A Good Speech Is Never Enough

Obama mostly showed the limits of the State of the Union.

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Congressional Republicans are accusing President Barack Obama of furthering the partisan divide in emphasizing executive actions in his State of the Union speech Tuesday.
Congressional Republicans are accusing President Barack Obama of furthering the partisan divide in emphasizing executive actions in his State of the Union speech Tuesday.

As he usually does, President Obama gave a good speech. He hit many of the right notes, whether praising the son of a barkeep turned House speaker or the bravery of an Army Ranger Cory Remsburg. He mentioned a string of laudable policy proposals from re-extending unemployment insurance to pay equity to a solid defense of his landmark health care law and so forth.

Any speech, however, is constrained by its circumstances. It's a common misconception of presidents in general and the bully pulpit in particular that they can, through sheer force of will, alter the course of events, but it's rarely so for presidents and it's never so for speeches. A speech can catalyze a moment and shape the current of events, but a speech alone cannot redirect them. The greatest speeches rise to the full potential context allows – they, and those delivering them, seize their moment.

But not all moments are created equally – sometimes circumstances constrain a speech's grasp regardless of its reach. Regardless of how well the president spoke tonight, he was bound by the circumstances attending his annual report to Congress: a calcified gridlock spurred by an intransigent opposition with election year politics narrowing potential paths of action anyway.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

And despite the pomp and circumstance that surround this annual rite of our democracy, the State of the Union format has its own limitations which augment the bully pulpit's – the laundry list nature of the speech dilutes its power. There have been memorable moments in State of the Union addresses – FDR's "Four Freedoms," JFK's exhortation to the moon, Reagan and Lenny Skutnik for better, George W. Bush's "axis of evil" for worse – but there hasn't been a memorable speech.

None of this is to say that the bully pulpit is completely impotent. As I observed to the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza earlier today, not only did Obama have the attention of more Americans tonight than any politician (himself included) figures to for the rest of 2014, but he laid out a blueprint for the sprawling bureaucracy to follow. But as Chris correctly concluded, the speech's importance is not proportional to its hype.

So it will be with this speech. There are themes and ideas that we'll probably hear more about. No doubt "year of action" will linger for a few days or weeks. And Obama's predilection for executive action in the face of congressional lassitude figures to become a lingering flashpoint – it has the right combination of being a fight both sides are anxious to pick (Obama gets to show swing voters that he's bypassing uncooperative Republicans while the GOP can cry dictatorship to its base) with a press looking for conflict to cover. Hopefully the president will continue to hammer the opportunity theme. It has the double virtue of dovetailing with the notions of responsibility Democrats have to talk about to sell social safety net programs, and also will prompt Republicans to complain about rhetorical theft. But the media will expend more words on the 2014 State of the Union address tonight than it will for the rest of the year.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Speaking to reporters on a conference call after Obama and (official) GOP respondent Cathy McMorris Rodgers had finished, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said that he'd "be surprised if there isn't some more enduring response coming out of this in coming days." He was armed with an array of dial-test data showing a good response to a strong speech: Obama went from -2 to +27 on the "thermometer" and -1 to +12 on the Affordable Care Act.

Maybe Greenberg is right, but it seems to me that the very best Obama and his team can hope for in terms of a lingering response will be a return to the somewhat more positive public view of him predating the ugly Obamacare roll-out and "keep your doctor" fiasco – that the battle lines be moved a few dozen feet back to where they were before.

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