Based on my initial reactions, President Obama's highly anticipated State of the Union tonight was not a tour-de-force, but it did at long last present the image of a hands-on, involved president that we have missed for the past year. If I'm hopeful of anything at all after this speech, it's that Obama will be much more visible and hands-on about his agenda for the rest of his term, and thus will be at least more effective than the feckless Congressional Democrats who have engendered so much ill will.
The president's speech didn't start off promisingly. Obama came out in full-bore populist mode, but sounded awkward and uncomfortable doing it. Channeling the anti-Wall Street sentiment, he mentioned levying huge fees on top banks--but left that explosive statement without any details on who or how. Yikes. Then came the announcement of the spending freeze, admirable given the government's ever-rising mound of debt, but hard to pull off during a deep recession. Perhaps this won't be significant; the president immediately excepted the major programs (two wars, Social Security, Medicare) from the freeze. I'm interested to see if Congress adopts "pay as you go" and whether Obama makes good on his threat of the veto.
For the first half of the speech, I was largely bored by the amount of vague and generic lines coming from Obama. I was off-put by the passive agressive Bush-bashing (never by name) that he repeatedly engaged in. Fine, I get it, you wanted to explain that you inherited massive deficits. But to keep harping on the previous adminstration? Come on. Actually, if Obama really wanted to show a lack of partisanship, and score points, when he came to the part on his speech where he was talking about America's support for freedom and democracy, he could have easily quoted George W. Bush. It would have been a nice gesture, practical, and would have earned him kudos from the other side of the aisle--just one short line!
But in the second half of his speech, Obama definitely got more comfortable, and had more interesting things to say. I like how he underscored the importance of infrastructure investment, noting for example, that we should have a high-speed rail network like France's or China's. (I'm still skeptical this happens, though.) I like how he punctured the pap around the fantasy expectations of his campaign mantra "Change", replacing the inarticulate with a palpable and urgent call to action.
I liked what I heard about developing more energy sources--mentioning nuclear energy and offshore drilling was a nice political compromise (and as a strong proponent of nuclear power, was happy to hear it!). He also demonstrated an awareness of the political landscape in acknowledging the health care bill's unpopularity (specifically calling out "all the lobbying and horse-trading"); telling Democrats that they have a large majority and have to be able to solve problems; and showing some backbone and common sense in admonishing Republicans that they just can't say no to everything. Especially with Scott Brown taking the Senate seat in Massachusetts, the Republicans really have to be a partner in governing the country, and Obama said as much.
In the most clear indicator of priorities, foreign policy and national security took a clear backstage to domestic policy (~90% of this speech). The president surely recognizes that the be-all, end-all for American voters right now is jobs. That unemployment figure, above 10% right now (and not including discouraged workers), has to come down if he hopes to be able to advance any part of his agenda. So while it may have been nice to hear him say he intends to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", or serve up crowd pleasers like college-loan forgiveness, they will all be forgotten if he doesn't take care of Issue #1.
Most importantly about this speech, more than any content, is that Obama came off as grounded and understanding of the American public's mindset as well as the political landscape. For too much of his first year, Obama has been seen as the detached president, one who, though smart and of level temperament, has not conveyed an image of personal leadership and engagement in major issues. Tonight he was able to display empathy, show that he was taking tangible steps to address the problems, and largely sound down-to-earth and reasonable. This, more than anything else, is what the public needed to see in the president: that he understand, that he cares, and that he can do something to fix it.