One of the running narratives of Barack Obama’s administration has been how much it should mirror, or avoid, the acts of the last Democratic administration, Bill Clinton’s. In his State of the Union address last night, at least, Barack Obama became a Clintonian, at least in style. Like Clinton’s SOTU speeches, Obama’s was long (just over an hour) and organized less around a grand narrative than a point-by-point list of priorities, from taxes to immigration to education, and much more. When Clinton gave these speeches, they tended to get criticized by reviewers as “laundry lists”; voters and home viewers responded to them much better than pundits in polling.
Whether that’s true as well of Obama, in a polarized election year, we’ll have to see. But the Clintonian list of priorities was delivered in an Obaman frame. While the SOTU did not have the rhetorical loft from beginning to end of one of his 2008 campaign speeches, it was bookended by uplifting tributes to the Navy SEAL team that took out Osama Bin Laden last spring, which Obama used as an example of Americans setting aside differences to achieve a goal.
The opening and closing felt like a deliberate callback to his 2004 Democratic convention speech, in which he said that there was no “red America” and “blue America”; here, he said, “When you put on that uniform, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white; Asian or Latino; conservative or liberal; rich or poor; gay or straight. When you’re marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails.”
The description sounded a familiar theme for Obama, of Americans finding their commonalities instead of being separated by their differences. It also, of course, reminded his audience that he was the President who got Bin Laden killed, which does not exactly hurt in an election year. And the speech was filled with awareness of that election, and of the divisions and differences that have stalled legislation in the Congress he was speaking to. (Differences that were underlined, maybe better than any words in the speech, by the repeated cutaways to a stone-silent Mitch McConnell and a scowling Eric Cantor staring lasers at the podium.)
So while praising Americans’ ability to come together on one hand, he also, repeatedly, urged the particular group of Americans in the room to send legislation to his desk. He also directed a good chunk of his economic message to one American not in the room. When he pointed out Warren Buffett’s secretary in the audience, noting that her billionaire boss pays a lower tax rate than she does because of rules on capital gains, he may as well has said, “Cough! Mitt Romney! Cough!” And he directly echoed Romney’s “class warfare” rhetoric back from the podium: “When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich,” he said, with a touch of scorn on the word “envy”: “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.”
Common cause or not, red or blue or purple, this was a politically minded speech for a political year, and Obama signaled that it would be a combative one. (Though there were moments of lightness, including an aside about milk regulations that led slowly to one of the most groan-worthy “spilled milk” jokes in history.) And for the Republican response, the GOP went with a figure party leaders tried to persuade to run for president, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana. Daniels didn’t come across as a dynamic dream candidate, speaking in cool tones while facing the camera sidelong, from a 30-degree angle. (To Obama’s spilled milk, he was a glass of warm milk.) But the response is a generally thankless job, usually delivered to an empty room in silence, and Daniels at least was not memorably bad in a way that’s likely to follow him afterward—as did Gov. Bobby Jindal’s golly-shucks performance a couple years back—and kept his speech pointedly on the GOP’s favored deficit-hawk, small-government economic themes.
Maybe the most memorable moment of the night, though, was not part of a speech, but came when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, recovering from being shot in the head a year ago, entered the chamber. Obama wrapped her in a long, warm hug before he spoke, and during the speech, a Republican colleague repeatedly helped her stand to applaud.
This was something that transcended party, but then, Giffords recently announced she’s leaving Congress. It was a reminder, as the speeches ended and the political arguments struck up on cable news, that you take your flashes of bipartisanship where you can get them, and don’t expect them to last long.