President Obama’s State Of The Union 2012: How’d He Do?

President Obama delivered a strong State of the Union (SOTU) address tonight in which he previewed the outlines of the 2012 presidential race.

Of course, State of the Union speeches are rarely remembered for long. Most Americans rightfully view presidential promises made during the annual address with skepticism. (Remember President George W. Bush’s 2004 pledge to have a manned mission to Mars? How’s that going?)

Although the speech itself may not be remembered much past next week, I noticed two major elements that may help determine the outcome of the 2012 election. 

President Obama delivers the State of the Union Address, January 24, 2012. Photo: NBC News

1. Optimism: Since the beginning of the 24/7 media age in 1980, there have been eight presidential elections. The more optimistic candidate has won all eight.

President Obama seems to be aware of that dynamic, as the SOTU was full of the sunny, upbeat rhetoric that independent voters predictably prefer. For example, some of his lines included:

“We can do this. We’ve done it before!”

“We’ve come too far to turn back now. As long as I’m President, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum.”

“We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back.”

2. Class Warfare: Whichever Republican eventually gets the nomination will bash President Obama for injecting “class warfare” into the campaign. Mr. Obama attempted to preempt that tonight by saying:

“Now, you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.

We don’t begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it. When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference – like a senior on a fixed income; or a student trying to get through school; or a family trying to make ends meet. That’s not right. Americans know it’s not right.”

That’s a terrific talking point. Will it work in a general election against Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich? That depends on the strength of their rebuttal – but it’s a strong message that seems well-aligned with the mood of the country.

Although Mr. Obama got those two big things right, his speech wasn’t perfect in several areas:

1. Where’s the Vision? Yes, Mr. Obama articulated some ideas about job creation, education reform, and infrastructure, among others. But where’s the central narrative that will give voters a vision for what a second Obama term would look like? Where is his “Morning in America” or “Bridge to the 21st Century,” the central idea that will stand as his raison d’etre for four more years?

2. He Didn’t Improve on Five Weaknesses From Last Year: In my review of last year’s SOTU, I cited five places where the President could improve his delivery. He committed all five mistakes again this year. Here are three examples:

  • He Needs To Lose the Shtick: Last year, the President got some groans when he made a cheesy quip about salmon and another about pat downs. He did it again this year when he said, “We got rid of one rule from 40 years ago that could have forced some dairy farmers to spend $10,000 a year proving that they could contain a spill – because milk was somehow classified as an oil. With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk.” It’s fine if he wants to incorporate some humor, but he should try working outside of the Shecky Green school of comedy.
  • He Should Reduce The Hushed Tone: When President Obama seeks to emphasize a key point, he uses a hushed tone, something akin to a “spoken whisper.” It’s a perfectly valid technique when used sparingly, but he used it dozens of times during the speech (from the very first sentence), reducing its impact on every subsequent use.
  • Choose Bigger Stories: Every President since Ronald Reagan has used the SOTU to tell stories about a few “real people” in the audience. Well-chosen anecdotes can help bring abstract topics to life, and it is a good idea for speakers to alternate between general themes and specific examples. But I’m starting to wonder if the idea is so hackneyed at this point that it needs to be retired for a few years. Alternatively, the President could incorporate stories in a more genuine, heartfelt manner, such as recounting a personal encounter that moved or inspired him.

CONCLUSION

No single speech can accomplish everything, and I suspect the President will offer his vision for the next four years when he shifts more fully into campaign mode.

My overall takeaway? Mr. Obama is a tough competitor. In terms of the political calendar, he’s now in the middle of the third quarter, and his team is up by a point or two. The question is whether his opponent for the rest of the game is the Harlem Globetrotters or the Washington Generals.

Either way, he demonstrated many of the communications and political skills tonight that made him such a formidable opponent in 2008 – and he made clear that his opponent better bring his “A game” this fall.

COMMENTS? Do you agree or disagree with my analysis? Please leave your opinion in the comment section below, but remember the blog’s comment policy – no ad hominem attacks or pejorative name-calling will be posted.

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