It seemed like a laundry list of mostly dinky initiatives, and as such a return to Clinton’s style of State of the Union addresses. Those speeches got some bad reviews as oratory but were pretty popular and I suspect this one will go over well too. The speech gives the president the opportunity to present himself as a reasonable guy working hard for the American public, and he did an effective job of that. A few of the ideas in the speech may even be good ones: the “myRA” proposal, for example, seems like it’s worth considering. But nobody is going to remember this speech two days from now — with the exception of Obama’s very moving closing remarks about Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg.
Earlier today there was some speculation that Obama would return to the theme of being a “transformative” president who liberated us from the legacy of Ronald Reagan. But the speech was much more cautious than that. The recent campaign against inequality was mostly forgotten (too late for some of the Republican respondents to adjust), cast aside for the theme of expanding opportunity, which has deeper roots in American opinion. Probably the best example of the president’s caution came in the section on gun control, which seemed to be there mostly so that nobody could say that it was not — and which mentioned no specific steps Obama was taking to “stand up for the lives that gun violence steals from us.” Obama is no longer even trying for a gun control as significant as the one Clinton got. So maybe saying it’s a Clintonian speech is giving it too much credit.
But of course in one very important respect Obama has achieved more than Clinton for the Left, and the speech reflected that too: He got his health-care reform through. Now he is trying to make the best of it while acknowledging none of its flaws and falling back on the insinuation that Republicans have no alternatives. This insinuation is less and less true, and if Republicans make more of that fact it will be yet another bad development for Obama’s signature initiative.