President Barack Obama entered the House chambers Tuesday night bearing a distinct grin. Damned if the nation feels like it's swimming in a sea of negativity, the first term incumbent wouldn't show it.
He delivered a veritable call to arms, defining his first three years in the Oval Office while juxtaposing his agenda to the reality of a partisan climate on Capitol Hill. Obama's many faces: the compromiser; the populist; and part-time tough guy were on full display. His message was clear: he would like to clear much more off his to do list, but Congress keeps getting in the way.
Political scientists claim Obama toed the line between politics and policy astutely, setting the stage for his 2012 campaign narrative without crossing the threshold into stump speech territory.
It's hard to disentangle the two these days, said Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University. It's a carefully woven dance.
Obama's task heading into the speech was threefold: list his administration's accomplishments; lay out his agenda for the coming year and give Congress a gentle scolding. It led to a bizarre amalgam of tone switches, going from the boastful confidence of a job applicant, to the we can do this wistfulness of a peewee baseball coach followed by promises to take no guff when fixing the economy.
As long as I'm president, I will work with anyone in this chamber [...] But I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place, he said.
Costas Panagopoulos, another Fordham professor as well as self-styled State of the Union guru, said Obama subtly crossed the line from policy to politics at several points, making clear jabs at his potential Republican opponents without naming them. The juxtaposition of CEOs and their secretaries' tax burdens was a direct knock of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
He set up for what could potentially be a real dichotomy in this race, he said. Obama is nowhere near Romney in terms of wealth. He was noting that just because he's in an upper income bracket, he wouldn't avoid decisions that hurt him personally if they benefit the middle class.
Meena Bose, an historian who studies the presidency at Hofstra University in Uniondale, N.Y., said the speech amounted to a boilerplate address common to all presidents in election year. It set Obama in the frame of an ambitious leader stymied by a dysfunctional Capitol Hill.
He put the onus on Congress to act, Bose said. That's the president's way of saying, 'I recognize this problem. The public recognizes this. So who needs to come on board?'
Obama employed a common mantra, essentially promising the passage of key legislation four times by demanding a bill reach his office.
Most new jobs are created in start-ups and small businesses, he said. So let's pass an agenda that helps them succeed. Tear down regulations that prevent aspiring entrepreneurs from getting the financing to grow. Expand tax relief to small businesses that are raising wages and creating good jobs. Both parties agree on these ideas. So put them in a bill, and get it on my desk this year.
The actual minutiae of legislating remains a bit more nuanced, Bose said, but the rhetorical ease shows the advantage of the yearly address.
The idea that Congress will put together a bill and the president will sign it is greatly simplifying the process involved, she said. It shows the benefit of the incumbency.
The pressure on Congress to act put Obama in a perilous state. Try too hard and Obama seems childish. But a velvet touch shows a lack of leadership. Greer said Obama walked the tightrope without falling off.
I think it hit the mark, she said. He protected himself without seeming defensive or petty.
The speech began with a flood of patriotism, as the President, 50, started his speech touting the military's resolve and built up to the killing of Osama bin Laden, rounding off the evening in the same vein. It offered a chance to compare the discord of Washington to an entity the nation generally supports.
By starting with the military, the president was able to focus on common themes, Bose said. People support the troops; they agree with supporting the military. It's a way to bring the audience together. The killing of bin Laden showcases a major accomplishment.
But will Tuesday change anything? The national political agenda, climate, or presidential race?
In a word, no, Bose said. In an election year, we typically don't see major policy enactments. A presidential election year is a year which focuses on campaigning.