State of the Union 2014: President Obama's tough talk

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Remember the President Obama who used to preach “lower the temperature” civility and “work together” collaboration from the lectern during State of the Union speeches? Well, that guy didn’t show up last night to deliver our constitutionally mandated report card. Instead we got a tough-talking, battle-hardened chief executive who repeatedly promised to act alone to further his goals, when and where he can, whether or not he has the support of Congress.

Exuding confidence and cool that belied his low approval rating, President Obama began by emphasizing improvements in the economy — unemployment below 7%; 8 million new jobs over the past four years — and sketching micro-profiles of Americans living and producing the positive change we want to see in the world. Eschewing the declaration we all like to hear but don’t always believe (“The state of the union is strong!”), the President said to the viewing audience: “It is you, our citizens, who make the state of the union strong.” See, kids? The magic was inside us all along!

From there, it was all about him. Wanting to see America nurture the upswing to yield “a breakthrough year” on various fronts, President Obama made it clear he was going to do everything in his power to make it happen. “Whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunities for more American families, that’s what I’m gonna* do,” said the President, sounding a bold, resolute note that he hit time and again with phrasing like “if Congress wants to help” or “with or without Congress.” He called for immigration reform, restoration of unemployment insurance, continued job creation (especially in the high-tech sector), and a hike in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. “Give America a raise!”

*I chose the colloquial “gonna” because that’s how the White House quoted President Obama on its Twitter feed. Indeed, as the President spoke, his social media team was tweeting excerpts of the speech, accompanied by graphs, supporting stats, and photos. This State of the Union speech was a true transmedia experience. The parallel Twitter commentary also underscored the overtly self-serving/campaign-speech nature of the night; the tweeted photo of our President as a child felt too much, inappropriate. Of course, my Twitter feed was also full of peanut gallery irreverence. This joke from comedian Patton Oswalt: “If Obama walks in wearing Pharrell’s hat I will s—-t my own head off. #SOTU”

President Obama is coming off a bruising year headlined by the Republican-led government shutdown and bid to negate his controversial affordable healthcare initiative. Neither of those efforts ended well for the Republicans — and the President didn’t let them forget it. “I do not expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law, but I know the American people are not interested in fighting old battles,” said the President, who then went on, asking the GOP to give up on dismantling something that is “helping people,” and then, more bitterly, reminded them of those “40 votes” that affirmed the law, and how they were “plenty” the first time around. By rehashing the past, the President established context for his willful, activist posture. Still, it was surprising that he didn’t try to be more conciliatory, and it left me daydreaming about a State of the Union speech in which the President — any president, not just this one — had the confidence and guts to critique himself while issuing the nation’s report card. After all, it’s not like President Obama is perfect. See: the buggy roll-out of HealthCare.gov — a flub that no one can stop talking about except the President, last night.

President Obama’s tough talk made the speech’s chief distraction even more distracting, at least for me: the Odd Couple of Vice President Joe Biden and the Republican Speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner. They were seated above and behind the President and always visible to camera, Biden the goofball angel on one shoulder and Boehner the dour devil on the other. Every time President Obama went “with or without you” on Congress, I looked to Boehner for a reaction. It was hard not to read any fluctuation in his face or any adjustment in his chair as a squirm or a scowl.

For the most part, Boehner tried very hard to refrain from moving or smirking, a lost cause that only made him look more pained. Mr. Grumpy-Pants looked like you do when you’re stuck on a plane next to Guy Who Won’t Shut Up and Guy Who Can’t Stop Fidgeting, a.k.a. the Vice President, who kept taking pens and notepads in and out of his suit pocket, and at one point, smiled and pointed at someone in the crowd after the President called for patent reform. Whoa, Joe! Easy there! One of my favorite moments in the speech came during one of my least favorite passages, the self-serving Look at me! I rose from humble circumstances to become oh, so powerful! portion of the show: President Obama, referencing Boehner, noted how we live in a country where “the son of a barkeep is Speaker of the House.” Boehner returned the standing ovation with an awkward smile and thumbs-up. Meanwhile: Barkeep?! Has the President been binging on Deadwood lately?

We definitely know he watches a lot of Mad Men. President Obama’s only overt pop culture reference came during one of the speech’s most rousing, agreeable moments, when he called upon the nation to give women equal pay for equal work. It’s time, he said, to “do away with policies that belong in a Mad Men episode.” Even Boehner stood up and clapped for that. (Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner immediately issued a comment saluting himself.) I also appreciated how the President took the time to make a clear case for giving diplomacy a shot in Iran, even if success will mean that the writers of Homeland will have to completely rethink the future direction of the show. Which is probably a good thing, anyway.

President Obama ended his speech with a powerful salute to Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger who was badly wounded during his tenth deployment in Afghanistan, who has battled hard to recover, and who aspires to keep serving his country. He received an epic standing ovation, which he received with great grace. The President turned him into a symbol for the “breakthrough year” he wants for America: “[I]f we work together; if we summon what is best in us, the way Cory summoned what is best in him, with our feet planted firmly in today but our eyes cast towards tomorrow, I know it’s within our reach.”

In the aftermath, the pundits noted ironies and sniffed deeper agendas. President Obama’s strong-arm rhetoric comes at a time when he’s at his weakest, i.e., his lowest-ever approval rating. They also noted that this is a midterm election year, and that the Democrats are in danger of losing control of the Senate. A proactive President in 2014 might help produce a record that the Dems can run on. Might this be a year when stuff actually gets done in Washington? Regardless, as many analysts are saying today, there’s very little the President can do on his own without Congress’ help, despite his want to do so. Perhaps his play was about baiting all of Washington to action.

I know: Golly-gee-whiz. Speaking of which, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a representative from the state of Washington, gave the Republican response. Some pundits described her as a “rising star” in the GOP. She sat on a living room set, a folded American flag behind her. She talked a lot about her background, emphasized personal responsibility, rattled off all the usual Republican complaints about Democrat policies (“grow the middle class, not the government”), offered very few specifics for how they would do things different, and came off both canned and way too earnest. The pundits said she represented an attempt to soften the Republican image. She made them look superficial.

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