Washington “The ice is breaking up” in a frozen, partisan Washington. That’s what one hopeful Democratic senator said on the eve of President Obama’s State of the Union speech, and it would be nice to imagine that it were so. Obama talked Tuesday night with the muscular confidence of a man who feels he has the political wind at his back after his re-election victory.
“We can fix this,” said Obama in the speech’s signature line. But can we? And if so, what is the fix-it kit for resolving fiscal problems and making political institutions work again? The speech — like Obama’s presidency so far — was weak in specifying the details that would mobilize the public to push stubborn politicians to stop bickering and get it done.
Obama stayed relentlessly on message. There was so little that was new or surprising that perhaps the lack of novelty was the real news. Obama said he wanted to build a strong middle class. He supported balanced deficit reduction but didn’t have any new proposals. He called for “high-quality” preschool education for all children, details to come.
Maybe the best thing about winning is that you don’t have to try as hard to make news. Obama has the Republicans on the run as it is. He seemed relaxed, in command, and in that respect, entirely presidential. John Boehner, the stone-faced speaker of the House of Representatives sitting behind him, seemed to embody the unhappy “party of no” that the Republicans have lately become.
The body language was more important than the words. Obama’s speech wasn’t triumphal, it wasn’t flashy, and it had few catchy phrases. Its appeal was simple and practical. “We are citizens,” Obama said near the end. In other words, we don’t have to live this way, with a broken political system and constrained choices. They’re fixable problems.
Obama even made the country’s intractable fiscal mess sound solvable. He didn’t offer new proposals, but he made clear that he’s willing to make real changes in Medicare and other entitlement programs to begin to get the deficit under control. He said he was willing to offer savings on Medicare that would be equivalent to those proposed by the Simpson-Bowles commission. Now he should show the way by proposing those cuts, rather than throwing this rhetorical pledge into the miasma of congressional budget politics.
There’s a lot to be said for winning. As James Fallows predicted months ago in The Atlantic, getting re-elected gives the weight and validation of success to Obama’s past policies. He succeeds by standing still: He is ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so far without the dire costs that many predicted; the economy is recovering, as the financial markets tell us every day, not just in America but in Europe, too.
Give me lucky generals, Napoleon is supposed to have said, and the same could be observed of presidents. Obama seemed so unlucky four years ago, taking office when the U.S. economy was falling into a sinkhole, but he now has the good fortune to preside over the rebound. He gets to be chief executive at a moment when America discovers that it has abundant new sources of reasonably cheap energy and is a low-cost base for manufacturing — and when it occurs to people that maybe the country isn’t so destined for decline as it seemed a year or two ago.
The president deftly used the Ronald Reagan trick of planting popular heroes in the gallery to illustrate his points. The scene of the 102-year-old voter who had waited in line for hours to cast her ballot, now trembling in the House gallery to accept the cheers of the audience, was exquisite political theater. There was also real emotional power in Obama’s call to vote on gun control, as relatives of victims of Newtown and other tragedies sat in the chamber as witnesses to the horror of gun violence. The Republicans, sitting on their hands, looked lost.
Giving a good speech is a start: Now the White House needs to give the country a plan. Waiting for John Boehner to tell you his Medicare cuts is a mug’s game. Craft the plan, sell it to the country, push it through Congress.
And when Republicans balk (as they surely will)? Make them afraid. Make them worry that in defying the public’s demand for action, they will bury themselves so deep it will take a generation to dig out.