If you didn’t know better, you would’ve sworn this was the most popular, most successful president in the history of the republic—not a failing, on-the-ropes, washed-out incumbent with a less than 50 percent approval rating.
That’s how solid President Obama’s State of the Union speech was.
Oh, sure, there were the mandatory patches of populism and partisanship and mishmash of proposals that will never see the light of day. But the speech—as a speech—was good. And the president—as a speech deliverer—was back on his game, after inexplicably being AWOL from the bully pulpit for most of the past two years.
Maybe Obama realized that even his own supporters were forlorn at his recent uninspiring performance. Maybe he was energized by the Republican candidates immolating themselves. Maybe his chief speechwriter, former fair-haired boy Jon Favreau, decided he didn’t want to get written off as “washed up” at age 30.
Whatever the reason, Obama’s rhetorical performance last night was reminiscent of what got him elected. Consider these stylistic highlights:
Obama’s introduction was unlike any in recent memory. Rather than gradually leading into the talk’s substance or pandering for easy applause lines (like citing courageous Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, which, pointedly, he didn’t do!)—Obama chose a tougher course by launching straight into his recent visit to Andrews Air Force Base to greet the final troops returning home from Iraq.
In rapid order, he recounted killing Osama bin Laden, defeating the Taliban’s momentum, and beginning to bring soldiers home from Afghanistan. No wasted words, no persiflage, plenty of achievements—but all delivered briskly, economically, and confidently.
Shortly into the speech, there was little doubt where the president was headed. He quickly reviewed the nation’s recent history of resurrecting the financial system, reviving the auto industry, getting manufacturing moving again, and creating 3 million jobs. He neither dwelled on the dismal past nor pointed fingers at adversaries.
His goal, he said, was to create “an America built to last.” And that thesis, buttressed again by his administration’s achievements, would resonate clearly throughout the address, so no listener could be confused as to the president’s upbeat and positive theme.
It has become a time-honored State of the Union technique—prone to seeming overdone and forced—to strategically place individuals in the audience as illustrations for presidential themes. While Obama couldn’t resist the temptation, his use of a Southern single-mother mechanic, a Midwestern furniture maker, and Warren Buffett’s Omaha secretary seemed natural, useful, and strategic.
Quoting predecessors in the State of the Union is also de rigueur. But here, too, Obama used the technique creatively. Pointedly, he chose Republican Abraham Lincoln to reiterate the belief that “Government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.” And rather than directly quoting Democrats, Obama chose instead to channel John F. Kennedy, appealing to business leaders to, “Ask what you can do to bring jobs back to your country.”
Lest anyone think the Orator in Chief had lost his rhetorical fast ball, this speech was loaded with memorable one-liners. From a vow “to fight obstruction with action” to plans “to turn our unemployment system into a reemployment system that puts people to work” to a promise for no more “bailouts, handouts, or copouts”—the power of the spoken word was once again clearly on display.
Finally, with Republicans ready to pounce upon the mention of “class warfare,” the president pulled a fast one. Rather than alluding to the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent, he chose instead to single out a single, rich American to epitomize the inequity of the system. And it wasn’t Mitt Romney.
“When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes,” Obama said, “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.”
On the other hand, if in November, the stock market is stumbling, unemployment remains above 8 percent, and the Republicans realize Newt Gingrich is unelectable and send out someone who can win—this president may well wind up a single-termer. But at least for one shining moment last night, Barack Obama was once again the model of a persuasive public speaker.
Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications counselor, lecturer, TV commentator, and teacher for 40 years, and is a prominent public relations author. He can be reached at email@example.com.