Washington – President Obama’s first State of the Union address didn’t signal a political shift to the left or the right. It sounded more like a shrewd attempt to move from the inside to the outside — to position himself alongside disaffected voters, peering through the windows of the den of iniquity called Washington and reacting with dismay at the depravity within.
In the course of a 70-minute speech, Obama slammed almost everybody in town. He even included a little self-deprecation and self-doubt — “I know there are many Americans who aren’t sure if they still believe we can change — or that I can deliver it.” But that followed a lengthy indictment of how Washington works, or doesn’t work. It is a tribute to Obama’s rhetorical gifts that the man at the center of our political system could position himself as an exasperated but hopeful outsider.
Unsurprisingly, the president called out the Republicans for being consistently obstructionist: “If the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town … then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership.”
But he also called out the Democrats: “I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills.”
He called out both parties at once, in a passage that was about reducing the deficit but could have applied to health care or just about any other issue: “Rather than fight the same tired battles that have dominated Washington for decades, it’s time to try something new. Let’s invest in our people without leaving them a mountain of debt. Let’s meet our responsibility to the citizens who sent us here. Let’s try common sense. A novel concept.”
He called out the media: “The more that TV pundits reduce serious debates to silly arguments, and big issues into sound bites, our citizens turn away.” Hmmm, who on earth would do such a thing?
He even called out the Supreme Court , with six black-robed justices in attendance, for its recent ruling on campaign finance: “With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections.” With all due respect: Some deference. Justice Samuel Alito should have been able to restrain himself from mouthing what appeared to be “Not true, not true,” but he probably hadn’t expected to find himself in a free-fire zone.
All of this excoriation, it looks to me, serves a political purpose. One obvious lesson from last summer’s town-hall shoutfests, the rise of the Tea Party movement and the victory of pickup-truck-driving Scott Brown in the Massachusetts special election is that many voters are deeply alienated from Washington. Another lesson, especially from Brown’s Senate win, is that the legions who were so enthralled by Obama’s candidacy that they elected Democrats across the country are now unmotivated and perhaps disenchanted.
But polls show that Obama remains personally popular — and that voters hold him less responsible for government dysfunction than either Republicans or Democrats in Congress. In Wednesday’s speech, Obama used his campaign theme of “change” not just to reignite the fervor of disappointed supporters but also to speak to angry critics for whom “Washington” is an epithet not uttered in polite company.
No, he won’t be able to appease the hard-core Tea Party crowd. But independent voters who are fed up with partisan gridlock heard the president invite Republicans to offer their ideas on health care, energy, education and other issues. I believe he may have succeeded at making it more difficult for Republicans to keep giving “no” as their all-purpose answer to anything the administration proposes. The president sounded reasonable and open; the opposition risks sounding truculent and Machiavellian.
Obama was at his most popular when he was seen as a different kind of politician, one who would speak harsh truths to friends as well as adversaries, one who offered not cynical calculation but unapologetic hope. In his State of the Union speech, he sought once again to sound the themes — and inhabit the persona — of his remarkable campaign. He’s been president for a year, but he sounded like an outsider again.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
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